Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats (2014) by Yosuke Fujita

Tatsuo Fukada (Miyuki Oshima) lives out his life, content with his lot, working at a construction company and drinking with his friend and co-worker. He also spends time with his two oddball flatmates, one of whom recently completed a pilgrimage of Buddhist shrines to atone for his sin of stealing panties, the other who is living with a giant snake in his apartment. Despite his friends’ insistence that he find a girlfriend, and attempts to matchmake for him, Tatsuo remains steadfastly single, happy with his hobby of decorating and flying kites. In a parallel story we follow Chiho Sugiura (Asami Mizukawa), a young woman who quits her job in order to follow her dreams of becoming a photographer. When she unexpectedly comes face to face with Tatsuo she is reminded that they were at school together. Tatsuo was mercilessly bullied for his appearance and Chiho begs his forgiveness for her part in the teasing. She is enamoured by his features and wishes to use him as the subject in her art, finally finding her muse in Tatsuo.

Written and directed by Yosuke Fujita, “Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats” is a peculiar film in many regards. The pacing is very slow for the first hour until the film finally gets to the connection between Fukada and Sugiura. There are also tonal discrepancies in many sequences. For example, the sexual harassment of Chiho by a respected photographer, and hints towards his violence towards women seems at odds with the comedy stylings of other moments. The other element that is hard to reconcile with the general feel-good drama vibe is the character of Akira Nonoshita (Asato Iida), who swings wildly from a geeky caricature into something far more terrifying. The film is not without its moments though. The writing throws up some genuinely funny dialogue between the flatmates and it is clear to see the intention of the wackier elements. Miyuki Oshima uses her talents as a physical comedian to great effect, and her expressive features find themselves equally suited to more serious drama. Asami Mizukawa does a good job, but her part, as with many other characters seems underwritten.

“Fukuchan of Fukufuku Flats” is ostensibly a comedy, but finds itself lacking enough jokes to keep things interesting. The talented cast do their best with the material. The film is at its strongest when it reaches its revelatory moment about Fukada and Chiho, but it does so little to really set up the characters even this moments lacks the impact it should have. The film’s central theme is that of forgiveness and moving on with life, but the message is confused by its bizarre tone. Themes of sexual perversion and violence seem completely out of place and the relevance to the story of Fukada, the film’s protagonist, is tenuous. Despite the fantastic central performance of Oshima, this film sadly falls short as both a drama and a comedy.

Funky Forest: The First Contact (2005)

A collection of surreal shorts, including dance routines, animated segments, nonsensical comedy skits, aliens, canine film directors and more. Throughout a two-hour run time the audience is assaulted with an eclectic, stream-of-consciousness, merry-go-round of drama, slapstick, puerile jokes involving bodily functions, dadaist segments in which you begin to wonder whether this is intended to entertain or frustrate you, and parts which defy explanation entirely. The film will occasionally tease you with a recurring character, a common theme or concept mentioned in different scenes, but on the whole it is fascinatingly, even hypnotically, anarchic.

The film was written and directed by Katsuhiro Ishii, Hajimine Ishimine and Shunichiro Miki, who obviously delight in completely bamboozling their audience. Although the film might be accurately described as unconventional, there is undeniable talent on show here. Each segment does have at least a few clever ideas, and they know how to provoke a response when necessary. With each segment being short, there is also the chance that if you are not enjoying one, there will be something else that you will like. The film features a large cast, including some well known actors such as Rinko Kikuchi and Tadanobu Asano, as well as Evangelion director Hideaki Anno (some of whom appear in multiple roles).

The film should be enjoyed as a collection of short sketches, more akin to a variety show, than a traditional beginning-to-end story. Ridiculous as much of it is, I felt that it was far from meaningless. It does what great art should and provokes you, it provokes you to wonder what is happening, perhaps even offering you a perspective on life that you may not have considered. It is certainly one of the weirdest films you will ever watch, and I would recommend that you give it a try, especially if you are a fan of surrealist comedy. It is an experience that you are not likely to forget in a hurry.

Robo-G (2012)

When their robot falls out of a window a week before a major robotics exhibition, three hapless engineers need to find a way out of their dilemma. They decide to hire an elderly actor, Shigemitsu Suzuki (Mickey Curtis),  to get inside the remaining shell of their creation and pretend that it is still functioning normally. The old man wows attendants at the robotics show with his displays of dexterity and lifelike movement, seemingly able to do anything, causing the three engineers to panic that their ruse will soon be uncovered.

This light-hearted family comedy has a great premise which is amusing enough to carry a sometimes weak script. There are moments of slapstick humour with most of the jokes deriving from the public’s ignorance of the old man inside the robot suit. Mickey Curtis, playing the elderly Suzuki, does a great job with the character, who is shown to be struggling with modern life and feeling a little abandoned by society. The three engineers (played by Gaku Hamada, Junya Kawashima and Kawai Shogo) also have some great moments. We also follow a young engineering student (Yuriko Yoshitaka) who is obsessed with the marvellous robot, and members of Suzuki’s family. I found that it was an entertaining film, very similar to others in the genre (director Shinobu Yaguchi’s other films include “Waterboys” and “Swing Girls”), with a fun story and central performances, although some of the sub-plots are only very briefly addressed with the film’s main focus being on the jokes.

Despite being a knockabout comedy, the film also involves an emotional heart in the portrayal of the elderly Suzuki. We see him largely ignored by people around him due to his advanced years, and when he gets inside the robot suit there is an interesting dynamic as he is beloved by everyone and highly entertaining, but nobody sees him. A fantastic reflection of society valuing youth over age, further highlighted with the advancement of robotic technologies making people partially obsolete. I would recommend this film as an easy watch with a few great comedic moments.

The Castle of Cagliostro (1979) by Hayao Miyazaki

Famous thief Lupin the Third has just pulled off an incredible casino heist. Escaping with his partner in crime the two discover that the stash of bank notes they have stolen are in fact incredibly good forgeries. Lupin realises that they are from the legendary Cagliostro. The two arrive at a castle that appears to be abandoned and are soon pulled into a madcap adventure. The crooked count who runs the forgery scam is planning to marry a young woman to fulfil a prophecy that is said to grant whoever finds it a great treasure.

Directed by Hayao Miyazaki and based on a manga by legendary writer Monkey Punch, “The Castle of Cagliostro” is a film that is packed with enjoyable moments. The plot races along from action scene to action scene, but sketches out likeable enough characters along the way. Lupin is a loveable rogue whose crimes never overshadow the fact his heart is in the right place. It is a typical hero rescuing a princess narrative, but styled as a modern crime caper. The blend of medieval architecture and modern technology creates some fun sequences as they try to sneak into the castle and evade detection. The animation and artwork are solid and as with many works of this period display a great range of character designs. The castle provides a fantastic setting with plenty of variety, and the use of camera angles gives us a full picture of the environment. The sequences on the roof in particular show off the amazing work of the artists and animators to their fullest.

“The Castle of Cagliostro” is a film that is a fun family friendly romp for all ages. Slapstick humour, a simple yet well executed plot and great action sequences mean there is never a dull moment.

My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)

Nonoka is the youngest child of the Yamadas, an ordinary family living in Japan. She lives with her older brother, her mother and father, and her grandmother. The film is a series of vignettes showing their everyday interactions. In one of the early segments we see Nonoka being left at a supermarket by her family after she falls asleep, and their panicked attempts to find her again. Another shows attempts by the father to bond with his son. While they are not tied together by theme or an overarching plot, these segments give a full picture of family life that is sure to resonate with many people.

The film is based on a manga by Hisaichi Ishii with a screenplay by director Isao Takahata. The story feels very much like a serialised comic strip, with some scenes being no more than a single joke or reflection on family life. They  are punctuated by haiku which give a wry reflection on the behaviours of the characters, by creating a poetic image to symbolise the commonplace experiences. The animation is done in digital watercolours, that give the sense of a moving picture book. Similarly, the chaptered approach keeps things interesting. There is no real structure and the film is more akin to watching a series of shorts than a single narrative. The humour in the film is well-observed, relying on the family dynamics and characters. In particular, the bickering between husband and wife, the grandmother’s nonchalant rudeness, or Nonoka’s stoic acceptance of the bizarre situations she encounters. The script in this regard is excellent in reflecting everyday conversations between family members and different generations. There is also great use of fantasy sequences that are perhaps a reference to Nonoka’s understanding of events. The melodic piano score and bright visuals create a peaceful atmosphere that gives levity to any threat, such as the parents losing their daughter, or confronting a biker gang.

“My Neighbours the Yamadas” is a film that has a timeless quality, with eternally relevant subject matter, and an art style that is sure to be enjoyed for years to come. There is a poignancy to several scenes that manages to compliment the humour without becoming overbearing. This is a film that can be appreciated by different generations, with different experiences and perspectives colouring their response to the film. Children are sure to find humorous parallels to their own lives, while adults may share the parents’ frustrations at older relatives. Overall, the film is a joyful experience that manages to perfectly capture the family experience.