Not Quite Dead Yet (2020) by Shinji Hamasaki

A surreal comedy about a difficult father-daughter relationship. Nanase (Suzu Hirose) has never forgiven her father Kei (Shinichi Tsutsumi) for not being by her mother’s bedside when she passed away. As lead singer of a death metal band she pens excoriating lyrics about how much he stinks and how much she dislikes him. Her father seems oblivious to this, focussing only on his research at a pharmaceutical company. When the company develop a drug that allows a person to die and later return to life, Kei finds himself temporarily deceased for two days. There is a plot afoot by a rival company to take them over, which Kei learns about shortly after dying. His assistant Taku (Ryo Yoshizawa) hears about this attempt to steal the company and its research; and along with Nanase they attempt to save her father’s company, while Kei tries to contact them from the spirit world.

Writer  Yoshimitsu Sawamoto and first time director Shinji Hamasaki deliver a hilarious look at death that delights in poking fun at tense parent-child relationships. Odd characters, wordplay jokes, visual humour, and surreal moments all work together to create a film that has no intention of being taken seriously. The excellent comedic central performance of Suzu Hirose (Our Little Sister) as Nanase, gurning and howling her way through the film, alongside the equally amusing straight man act of Shinichi Tsutsumi as Kei, is a fantastic dynamic, the wild child teenager conflicting with her boring father. A fantastic supporting cast, with Yukiyoshi Ozawa as Kei’s assistant, Kyusaku Shimada as the rival company head, and cameo roles for Lily Franky as a spirit guide and Den Den as a ramen chef, give the whole thing a variety show feel, with some scenes playing almost as standalone sketches. The rock music sets off the riotous punk aesthetic, sticking one finger (the index finger) up to the norms of family dramas. There is little surprise in the resolution of the film and it never attempts to flesh out the narrative or characters, instead using every moment to cram in more jokes. The film even actively pushes back against convention at times, with Nanase telling Taku that this is not some kind of romantic drama.

“Not Quite Dead Yet” follows a long cinematic tradition of poking fun at death, puncturing any sense that it is something to be concerned about. By having a pill that allows people to die temporarily it further distances us from the fear of death. In this universe death is simply another state humans might be in, no different than being asleep. Nanase and Shinichi’s relationship deteriorates after the passing of her mother, with Kei burying his head in his work while Nanase vents her frustrations through her music. The film shows a slow coming together of the two and the realisation of the importance of living life and not forgetting those people who are left behind. With its whimsical premise and a short run time packed with laughs, the film is an easy watch that is sure to raise a smile.

Lala Pipo (2009) by Masayuki Miyano

Based on a collection of short stories by Hideo Okuda, “Lala Pipo” is a collection of interwoven narratives connected by themes of sex and loneliness. The opening monologue divides the world into two types of people, winners and losers, or ‘those who have sex’ and ‘those who watch sex’, referring to the humanities interminable struggle for dominance and atavistic competitive streak. This sets us up to be judge of the characters that follow, whether they are to be admired or pitied; in short whether they are the winners or losers alluded to. Hiroshi (Sarutoki Minagawa) is a freelance writer, a university graduate living in squalor and making a pittance, who pleasures himself to the sounds of his upstairs neighbour having sex. He later finds love in the voluptuous form of Sayuri (Tomoko Murakami), but he seems incapable of seizing this chance for happiness. It later transpires that Sayuri is luring men to perform unwittingly in a series of pornographic films. Tomoko (Yuri Nakamura) is a shy girl, picked up by Kenji (Hiroki Narimiya), a scout for hostess clubs and adult video, who cajoles her into entering the seedy world of pornography. He later takes on another client, a desperate 40-something housewife Yoshie (Mari Hamada) who he must find work for. Koichi (Tei Tomari), a part-time worker at a karaoke bar is disgusted by sex, fantasizing about being an interstellar traveller (his alter-ego Captain Bonito) studying the unpalatable carnal desires of humans; but it may be that his ostensible aversion is due to a supressed need.

With a screenplay by Tetsuya Nakashima (World of Kanako, Kamikaze Girls) and directed by Masayuki Miyano, “Lala Pipo” does a good job of telling several stories, each with their own dramatic arc, showing either the rise or fall of the characters, often due to some personality trait. Each storyline neatly overlaps with the others as we see several of the characters interact or cross paths. This allows the filmmakers to examine the themes of the film thoroughly, seeing the same events from several perspectives. There is a good mix of comedy and more serious themes in the film, including several hilariously surreal moments such as a green furry cartoon penis discoursing with one character, and another being transported into a gargantuan superhero to fight his worst enemy: a sexualised woman. Far from the two types of people the film proposes in the beginning, we instead see the uniqueness of each character. The film shies away from delivering a strong message or verdict on the characters, leaving that up to the audience to determine whether they are the winners or losers of their own lives. The actors are all fantastic as the film blends genres. The relationship between Nakamura and Narimiya is captured beautifully, with them see-sawing in terms of who holds the power. The comic actors, Tomoko Murakami and Tei Tomari help prevent the film becoming an unbearably depressing affair. Worthy of mention is the film’s set design, from the garish pink bedroom of Sayuri, to the heaped rubbish of Yoshie’s home, it shows us the various aspects of how people live, often hidden from the real world.

“Lala Pipo” may seem at first glance like a knockabout sex comedy, with perverts, porn actresses, miserable loners, and slick talent scouts, but as things progress it slowly reveals a darker side to the sex industry and people’s obsession with sex. One of the film’s strongest themes is that of the profound isolation experienced by people in society. Even those seemingly adored by fans often lack the basic human connections that help people get by. We see that both the playboy and the loner are at heart one and the same, both struggling to find something of meaning in their lives. Sex is not always a constant, meaning different things to different people. In the case of this film it can be a way of exploiting people, a goal, a perversion, or an escape. The characters show the desperation, jealousy, selfishness, shame, feelings of inadequacy, and other anxieties that confront people. The comedic performances and light-hearted tone help to underscore many of the more uncomfortable messages at its heart. An enjoyable film that says a lot about sex and society.

Funuke Show Some Love, You Losers! (2007) by Daihachi Yoshida

18-year old Kiyomi (Aimi Satsukawa) witnesses the death of her parents in a horrific traffic accident after they ran out into the road to save a cat. Following the funeral her older sister Sumika (Eriko Sato), who has been living in Tokyo attempting to make it as an actress, returns to the family home in the countryside. The two of them are staying with their step-brother Shinji (Masatoshi Nagase) and his wife Machiko (Hiromi Nagasaku). Far from a congenial family unit, Sumika repeatedly bullies Kiyomi, having never forgiven her younger sister for drawing an insulting manga of her. Sumika dreams of returning to Tokyo, but is unwilling to confront the debts she has left behind, and her own lack of talent as an actress. Meanwhile, Shinji is abusive towards the downtrodden Machiko, their sexless arranged marriage a product of circumstance rather than love.

Based on the novel by Yukiko Motoya, “Funuke Show Some Love You Losers” is a film about a completely dysfunctional family. Sumika is an irredeemably hideous character, overbearing and narcissistic, she blames her sister for her own failings. Eriko Sato gives a terrific performance as the delusional Sumika, convinced of her own abilities and oblivious to those around her. Meanwhile, Aimi Satsukawa’s Kiyomi is the polar opposite, a talented manga artist who suffers all the indignities her sibling piles on her. It is this relationship that represents the heart of the drama, with Sumika believing in her right to a successful career, while Kiyomi keeps her head down and works quietly on her goals. The secondary  story of Machiko and Shinji’s relationship complements this with their clashing personalities also leading to a strained relationship. Machiko is bottomless well of positivity, played eccentrically by Hiromi Nagasaku; while Shinji is depressive, his unreadable expression giving little away. The film deals with the darker side of family, with verbal, physical and emotional abuse. This often sits uncomfortably alongside the humour, which is light-hearted and playful, reinforcing the complexity of family relationships, where laughter and tragedy are all part of the mix. The cinematography showcases some of the picturesque landscapes of rural Japan, with the vivid greens of farmland stretching out to forested mountains. The direction also keeps things interesting, with low angled shots and artistic framing giving the film a stylish look. There is a great lived-in feel to the house where the four protagonists are forced to cohabit, with background details such as the funereal photographs, piles of books, and the inversion of usual tropes regarding food and dining bringing families together.

The film gives us four strongly defined characters, representing particular archetypes perhaps (the dominated housewife; the dour, stoic husband; the selfish, vindictive elder sister; and the timid younger sibling). Sumika’s return to the house is the spark that lights a powder keg of repressed emotions and old grudges. The film deals with themes such as jealousy, sibling rivalry, domestic abuse, and depression, among others. It is a powerful depiction of the hostility and lack of understanding that can occur between people who are prone to selfishness. The tragedy for these characters is that they are unable to change their behaviours. Kiyomi states at the end that she is unable to change, in the same way that her sister is also incapable of reform. In Sumika’s case, she is unable to even accept the possibility that she may be mistaken and not be as wonderful as she believes. “Funuke Show Some Love You Losers” is a call to consider those around you and examine your own shortcomings that you might come to a better understanding of your place in the world and the importance of building better relationships.

Fine, Totally Fine (2008) by Yosuke Fujita

A quirky drama about an unlikely group of friends. Akari Kinoshita (Yoshino Kimura) is a hopelessly accident-prone woman, who is hired by Hisanobu Komori (Yoshinori Okada) to work at a hospital. She spends her free time down by the river watching a homeless woman collect detritus with which she makes garbage-sculptures, whom Akari decorates her own house with drawings of. Komori’s friend Teruo Toyama (YoshiYoshi Arakawa) works as a civic groundskeeper, helping out at his father’s second hand bookstore part time. He is a horror fanatic with dreams of one day creating the scariest horror house in existence. Teruo’s father, Eitaro (Keizo Kanie), seems to have fallen into a semi-comatose slump, sitting behind his desk all day at the bookstore barely communicative with a glazed expression. After seeing a travel show on television he sets off to find some kind of respite from the daily monotony. Akari quits her hospital job and Komori recommends working at Teruo’s bookshop. Teruo and Komori’s fondness for Akari soon turns to feelings of love, but Akari has already met another man, Yuhara (Naoki Tanaka), who shows an interest in her drawings.

Written and directed by Yosuke Fujita, “Fine, Totally Fine” is an unconventional film, in that there are no great revelations or moments of triumph or disaster for the characters. There is an easy vibe and relaxing air to the film; things happen, characters talk, but there is little in the way of plot. The drama is enlivened by moments of comedy, mostly involving Teruo’s obsession with horror, such as his experience at a haunted apartment, or his various pranks on his friends. YoshiYoshi is a skilled comic actor, perfectly capturing the hapless everyman Teruo with his casual delivery and expressive features. Yoshino Kimura is also charming and amusing as Akari in a slapstick role, constantly bumbling in her attempts to seal a box, or wrap a lewd magazine for a customer. The story meanders from one scenario to the next with little momentum; instead each scene serves to highlight some example of the character’s peculiar faults or interests.

The characters all have hopes and dreams, searching for fame, fortune, or love, with varying results. The film’s themes are delicately expressed, often requiring some concentration from the viewer to piece together exactly what it is trying to say. Moments that in any other film would be paid off in the final act are here casually passed over without further comment, such as Teruo’s attempts to start a business, or Akari’s fascination with the homeless woman that begins the film. There are moments that suggest a depth to the film, with the “film within a film” that Teruo’s friends are making imitating life in unusual ways; ideas of the relationship between art and reality prominent in Akari’s drawings also; Yuhara’s job of fixing broken objects perhaps suggesting a parallel with the characters who are all missing pieces of themselves. Many of the characters seem to be trapped in situations that are not what they want to be doing; but it would be hard to describe them as suffering. There are certainly things to enjoy here: excellent performances, and a couple of genuinely funny moments; but the languid pace, absent plot, and vague gesturing towards a central theme may put off viewers who are looking for something more conventional.

Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers (2005) by Satoshi Miki

A bored housewife discovers a second life as a spy in this quirky comedy. Suzume Katakura (Juri Ueno) lives a mundane and monotonous life, consisting mainly of chores and looking after a pet turtle Taro. Her husband, working abroad, calls her only to check how the turtle is doing. Her friend “Peacock” (Yu Aoi) is everything Suzume is not, outgoing and energetic, with dreams of moving to France. One day, by chance, Suzume spots a thumbnail size sticker notice with a contact number for somebody looking to recruit a spy. She soon meets with Shizuo (Ryo Iwamatsu) and Etsuko (Eri Fuse), an unusual couple who, without question, give her 50,000 yen ‘living expenses’ and invite her to join their group of undercover agents working for a foreign government. They tell her that she is to be a ‘sleeper’ agent, and must remain inconspicuous, tasking her with various odd missions and giving her questionable advice and tips on spying. Suzume continues her life with newfound purpose, while the other residents in the town seem to be doing the same, waiting for the day that they will be called to action.

Satoshi Miki’s film find comedy in the juxtaposition of the humdrum life of its protagonist suddenly plunged into the thrilling world of espionage. The story unfolds as a series of comic scenes, often intercut with flights of fancy or flashbacks, and it is hard to discern much of a plot until the film is almost over. The humour is broad with surrealist non-sequiturs, sight gags and cringeworthy wordplay jokes. Juri Ueno gives a great central performance, expressive and relatable in her confusion about what is happening around her. Eri Fuse and Ryo Iwamatsu are perfect in their roles as unlikely spies, with their bizarre conversations and behaviours making for some of the funniest scenes. The rest of the cast, some with only a little to do, play their parts well, delivering deadpan absurdism.

“Turtles are Surprisingly Fast Swimmers” is a film about seeing the world from a different perspective. Suzume’s life is unbearably drab until she is essentially given a licence to reassess her surroundings and the other inhabitants of this small town. In another sense it is a story of self-discovery, with a message that the world is what you make of it. The social norms that can inhibit self-expression and stifle creativity and enjoyment are carefully ridiculed here, as we see Suzume carrying out tasks such as cleaning and shopping under the guise of being a sleeper agent, enlivening an otherwise dull existence. The idea being that you cannot change your duties, but you can change how you approach them. The one thing you have control over is how you interact with the world and how you choose to see things. The film also satirises the conformism of society summed up in the expression “the nail that sticks out gets hammered down”, with various secret agents striving to be absolutely average and unremarkable in every regard to maintain their cover. A whimsical farce with a great cast of comic actors, the film’s inoffensive humour and relaxed tone make it an enjoyable watch.