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.

Warm Water Under a Red Bridge (2001) by Shohei Imamura

Koji Yakusho stars as Yosuke Sasano, a man who has recently lost his job at a large company. After speaking to a homeless man, he learns of a treasure that was left behind when the man left another town some years before. The treasure is to be found in a house by a red bridge. Yosuke sets off to find the treasure for the man, being told that if he finds it he can sell it and keep the profits (the man only wants to know what happened to the treasure). When he arrives, he meets Saeko Aizawa, played by Misa Shimizu. The woman suffers from a peculiar condition which means that she feels herself filling with water. The only way to alleviate her discomfort is by shoplifting, or having sex, which causes the water to leak or gush out of her like a geyser. Soon Yosuke’s mission to find the treasure is forgotten as he becomes enamoured of Saeko, deciding to remain in the town, beginning a new life with her, and taking up a role aboard a fishing vessel.

Shohei Imamura won plaudits for his film “The Eel”, and “Warm Water under a Red Bridge” sees the writer-director again ploughing his own unique furrow. The film is a curious mix, with mystery, romantic drama and sex comedy thrown in. This sense of wrong-footing the audience pervades everything, and you are never sure whether you are watching farce or philosophy. Koji Yakusho and Misa Shimizu navigate their way through the genres, crafting believable characters in unbelievable situations. The film centres on sex and is humorously explicit while never being obscene in its depiction. The fountains of water spraying everywhere comically undercut the drama and create a sense of joy through humour that captures the emotion of love in a way that few films manage. Other characters, the three fishermen at the bridge, the marathon runner, and Koji’s workmates help to fill out a world that seems to be full of quirky individuals. The musical accompaniment by Shinichiro Ikebe is full of odd percussion and synthesisers, slipping from unnerving as Koji explores the unusual town, to comical as he gets entangled in ever more bizarre situations.

Trying to understand “Warm Water under a Red Bridge” is quite a challenge. It is a film that subverts expectations again and again, drifting from serious to ridiculous (often in the space of a single scene). It is a film that discusses the relationship between lust, sex and love. Yosuke is a man who is smitten with Saeko. Their passionate relationship is built around the sex, but the film asks what lies beneath this and what love is. Yosuke is also given good advice by his friend who tells him to stop overthinking things and to basically do whatever makes you feel good. This idea of seeking after personal satisfaction is one that pervades the film. Saeko is likewise a woman who is struggling to satiate her desires, and fills the emotional emptiness by stealing. The marathon runner, the fishermen, everyone is either waiting for something, searching or working towards some goal that is of the utmost importance to them. Yosuke is at first on the hunt for money, treasure, financial reward, and his journey of self-discovery is one that will lead him to the answer of what he is truly searching for.

Roujin Z (1991) by Hiroyuki Katakubo

Haruko is a student nurse working as a carer for the elderly, bed-bound and incontinent Takazawa. The government department in charge of looking after the aged members of society has developed a new machine, the Z-001, which it promises will revolutionise the care profession. The machine is a giant bed that includes television, telephone, games, and will wash, feed and clean the patient. It even has a special vacuum for dealing with toileting. The government remove Takazawa from his home and place him inside the prototype machine to test and promote its effectiveness. Haruko sets out with her friends to rescue Takazawa from the government’s clutches. However, things soon spiral out of control when the machine develops unknown capabilities.

“Roujin Z” was written by Katsuhiro Otomo (Akira) and shows many similarities with the director’s other works. This includes concepts of transhumanism, human-machine interfacing, and corrupt government departments that do not have the citizens best interests at heart. Director Hiroyuki Katakubo who worked with Otomo on Akira does a great job with the mix of tones in “Roujin Z”. The film leans heavily on the comedy and jokes, particularly early on, which helps get the audience onboard with the somewhat out-there premise. There is also a lot of action and the breakneck pace leaves little time for reflection. Once the plot kicks into gear there is barely time to consider as it moves from one action sequence to another, with helicopter chases and robot fights. Haruko is a sympathetic protagonist, the personification of the kindness and hardwork of the medical profession. The artwork and style includes some excellent backgrounds, packed with details and the robots are well-designed, stretching the concept of a sentient robotic bed to its limits.

This film is packed with ideas about the future of the medical profession, the problems associated with technological progress, the corruption inherent in corporations and the military. Haruko’s job is threatened by the emergence of this new technology, and the film raises concerns about what society loses by relying heavily on computers or robots, positing that such progress may lead to a diminishment of compassion and human contact. The treatment of the elderly is at the heart of the drama. Although there is comedy to be gained from Takazawa being tossed around by the robot, the complete lack of care shown to him by the head of the department for welfare shows a dark side to how society sidelines their elderly. There are more far reaching concepts such as how humanity is increasingly becoming tied up with technology. Takazawa becomes able to converse through the machine and likewise people are able to hack into this system. An excellent science-fiction film that touches on many important ideas concerning the future of humanity, with an action-packed script and lots of humour.

My Father, the Bride (2019) by Momoko Fukuda

Toka (Honoka Matsumoto) travels home for the anniversary of her mother’s death. She is shocked to see her father Seiji (Itsuji Itao) in her mother’s dress, and more shocked to discover he plans to remarry with a man named Kazuo (Kenta Hamano) who he is living with. Kazuo also has a teenage daughter, Dari (Serena Motola) whose friend Taki (Yugo Mikawa) is dealing with his own issues of identity. Toka slowly grows to an understanding of her father and acceptance of his decision.

Written and directed by Momoko Fukuda, “My Father, the Bride” is a film about family relationships, particularly that between Toka and her father. The film is also about gender and sexuality, although it is chaste in its depiction of the relationship between Seiji and Kazuo. Honoka Matsumoto’s performance as Toka is great, showing her discomfort at what she discovers when she returns home and her growing acceptance of her father. The story of Daria and Taki also offers a great subplot, reflecting the same struggles for a younger generation, and Serena Motola and Yugo Mikawa offer some of the most emotionally charged moments and an excellent chemistry as firm high-school friends. Yugo Mikawa’s performance is one of the highlights of the film. The music, light jazz horn and piano and breathy flutes, and the cinematography of their beautiful island home all goes towards creating a comfortable feel. There is little real conflict or tension in the film, as with many stories on the subject of sexuality in Japan it prefers a softly-softly approach to its theme. The film uses the family dinner table as a main stage (the Japanese title “Delicious Family” gives an indication of the importance of food in the story). We see characters variously arranged around the table in relation to their situations, with Toka often sat across from her father, but later in the film sitting side by side as they make food together.

The film has a clear message about accepting gender differences. The relationship between Seiji and Kazuo seems a little underdeveloped. Perhaps this is to be expected as it is Toka’s story and told from her perspective. The audiences lack of knowledge about their relationship is perhaps intended to mirror that of our protagonist who has arrived in medias res. In contrast Taki’s journey is a powerful and necessary depiction of the struggles of young people coming to terms with their sexuality. The film is full of heart with some great comedic moments from Honoka Matsumoto and a standout performance by Yugo Mikawa. It rarely subverts expectations on a narrative level, but its charm shines through and it is an enjoyable family drama.