Anime Supremacy! (2022) by Kohei Yoshino

A first-time anime director becomes involved in a ratings war with her hero while attempting to see her creative vision brought to fruition. Hitomi Saito (Riho Yoshioka) quits a solid career as a public servant to enter the highly competitive world of anime. Seven years later, in charge of her first project as director, she is keen to see her story realised, not least as her series will be going up against another from famed director Chiharu Oji (Tomoya Nakamura), whose work first inspired her to enter the industry. Hitomi must navigate issues with her staff as well as concerns from the network and her production manager Yukishiro (Tasuku Emoto), who wants the reserved Hitomi to do more promotion for the show. Meanwhile, Oji is also going through creative issues much to the frustration of his assistant Kayako (Machiko Ono).

“Anime Supremacy!” is a fun, drama based on a novel of the same name by Mizuki Tsujimura, that shows us behind-the-scenes at an anime production company; showing the high-paced, combative reality of creating what is one of the most popular forms of entertainment in Japan, and increasingly the world. We see the rush to deadlines, the vast amount of talent it takes to put an episode together, and the conversations between the creatives and the business-minded management. Riho Yoshioka gives a superb comedic performance as Hitomi, with her charmingly expressive characterisation also leaving room for moments of thoughtfulness and passion. Tomoya Nakamura and Machiko Ono also have great on-screen chemistry, with the troubled artist constantly at odds with his overworked assistant. There is a huge supporting cast here and some of them miss out on character development. This is particularly true with Kazuna (Karin Ono), whose side-story goes nowhere despite her being an engaging addition as a brilliant artist completely wrapped up in her own world. The direction is energetic, with occasional flashes of creativity, especially the animated additions showing the battle between the two shows as an ongoing race between the protagonists.

Fans of anime will no doubt enjoy the film as a look at the creative processes and some of the characters who bring to life these fantastical shows. While at times the film is confused in its messaging, attempting to juggle the stories of Hitomi, Chiharu, and to a lesser extent Kazuna, the characters are interesting and the central rivalry ensures we are invested in the ending. Hitomi is someone who has a singular vision and this single-mindedness leads her to neglecting or under-appreciating her colleagues. As she matures through the film we see her gradually begin to understand the value of teamwork and the efforts of others. There is also a strong theme running through about the struggle of artists to protect their work from the predations of corporate interests who want to sanitise everything for marketability. Interestingly both animators in the film choose a different path in the end and it is left to the audience to decide what is most important, success as defined by financial gain or popularity, or as defined by cleaving to your own ideals.

Face (2000) by Junji Sakamoto

After murdering her sister, an introverted woman sets out on a journey of self-discovery while fleeing the police. Masako (Naomi Fujiyama) works with her parents in a dry-cleaning and repair business in Kobe, largely confined to sewing in her room, with little apparent interest in the outside world. When her younger sister, Yukari (Riho Makise), working as a hostess in Tokyo, pays a visit it is immediately clear that the two sisters could not be more different. The outgoing Yukari berates Masako for not getting out more, while Masako seems to harbour a grudge against her younger sister. When their mother dies, the two are left alone and an argument sees Masako kill Yukari in a fit of pent up rage. After contemplating suicide, Masako heads out to try and find her absentee father. Along the way she faces sexual violence and other trials as she learns to be resilient and independent. Her odyssee takes her to a bar in Beppu where she works for Ritsuko (Michiyo Yasuda) and Hiroyuki (Etsushi Toyokawa) and begins to experience happiness for the first time.

“Face” written by Isamu Uno and Junji Sakamoto and directed by Sakamoto is a tragi-comic tale that works as a coming-of-age story for a woman whose self-imposed isolation has left her almost childlike in her naivety and lack of assertiveness. Naomi Fujiyama’s performance as Masako is full of charm and underlying insecurities. We never learn the exact reason behind her father’s departure, or her hatred of her younger sister, but her awkward, misanthropic attitude is captured perfectly by Fujiyama. “Face” is an unsual mix of difficult subject matter, familial murder and rape, but overall has a darkly comic tone and even some out-and-out humour, such as when Masako is learning to ride a bike or to swim, activities she always wanted to try. Even in its final moments the film leans towards the comedic and the jaunty score emphasises this lighthearted tone. The plot swings from one experience to the next, some good, some bad, presenting us with a chequered impression of life’s ups and downs. There are some outstanding moments in the direction but for the most part the focus is on the performances, which are all outstanding. Riho Makise, as the forthright and independent Yukari, and Michiyo Yasuda and Etsushi Toyokawa as bar hosts Ritsuko and Hiroyuki, act as the worldly-wise foils to Masako’s naive heroine.

The sympathetic Masako is a unique character battling her own demons. The fact that she is a fugitive is brought up throughout as a plot device to keep her moving to the next place, forcing her into the path of the next character who will help her piece together a sense of self in this complex society. But it is this journey of self-discovery that lies at the heart of the drama. We see her at her highest and lowest points and how she responds to both kindness and cruelty. In the end, Masako’s fate rests entirely in her own hands, both happiness and misery available to her, showing the extent to which our experiences are shaped by our reactions to circumstance. A worthwhile film with a fantastically nuanced central performance.

Mitsuko Delivers (2011) by Yuya Ishii

A 9-months pregnant woman returns to the street she used to live on, doing her best for the people around her. Mitsuko Hara (Riisa Naka) finds herself pregnant, single, unemployed and homeless. Following her whimsical philosophy that people are blown on the wind, she heads back to the street she once lived on with her parents. Her parents believe she is living a dream life in California. Mitsuko begins caring for the elderly landlady on the street and meets up with a childhood admirer Yoichi (Aoi Nakamura), who is still running a small restaurants with his uncle Jiro (Ryo Ishibashi).

The film has a relaxed pace that, with things only really getting any kind of impetus very late in proceedings. Risa Naka’s performance as the determined, permanently optimistic, Mitsuko is fantastic and carries the film. The supporting cast do an admirable job but the script often lacks enough humour or emotion for them to get their teeth into.

“Mitsuko Delivers” is a film about traditional values of community that have been largely forgotten in the modern day. The street of Mitsuko’s youth that she returns to represents this lost past of social cohesion and people knowing what they should do. It is chaotic and destitute but people all have a role to play and few worries despite their circumstances. As Mitsuko works for the community they in turn help her out. A film with an earnest and wholesome message about the value of community that is let down by a lacklustre script and meandering plot.

Adrift in Tokyo (2007) by Satoshi Miki

Two men embark on a stroll around the capital in this easy-going comedy drama. Fumiya (Joe Odagiri) is deep in debt, having spent 8 years as a student. The man sent to collect on these debts, Fukuhara (Tomokazu Miura), comes to him with a bizarre proposition: if Fumiya will accompany him on a walk around the city he will hand him enough money to clear his debts. Fumiya later discovers that Fukuhara has killed his wife and intends to hand himself in at a particular police station; but wishes to spend his final days taking in sights that he used to enjoy with his wife. The two of them set out, meeting quirky characters and philosophizing about their lives, before Fumiya is recruited into a fake family consisting of Fukuhara, his fake-wife Makiko (Kyoko Koizumi) and her neice Fufumi (Yuriko Yoshitaka).

“Adrift in Tokyo”, based on the novel by Yoshinaga Fujita and directed by Satoshi Miki, takes you along on a meandering journey, its languid pace sustained by the odd-couple dynamic of Fumiya and Fukuhara, both men searching for something intangible on their perambulations. The comedy is similarly understated with the occasional flash of surrealism, such as the 66-year old cosplayer, or the psychedelic rocker Fumiya ends up tailing through the streets. In its loosely strung-together series of quirky moments and ideas the film captures the sense of tramping through a city as diverse as Tokyo. “Adrift in Tokyo” very much adheres to the mantra that it is the journey rather than the destination that is important, never fully reconciling certain ideas and offering little in the way of closure.

Fumiya repeatedly refers to the fact that he was abandoned by his parents and seems to find a surrogate father in Fukuhara. Fukuhara also seems to lack a sense of identity, instead hiring himself out to play a character in a fake family. As the two wander around they come across different aspects of the city, questing for a sense of self amongst the overwhelming variety of Tokyo. The bizarre characters they meet, glimpsed only briefly, offer a window into the myriad lives that are carrying on around each individual. It is perhaps hard for people to discover who they are while feeling part of such a vast whole.

The Warped Forest (2011) by Shunichiro Miki

2005’s “Funky Forest: The First Contact” brought together three directors who created a bizarre, surrealist montage of skits. “The Warped Forest” sees one of these directors, Shunichiro Miki, return to the same vein of wacky, non-sequitur comedy with an ensemble cast including Rinko Kikuchi and Fumi Nikaido. It could be considered a sequel of sorts to the first film, and fans of “Funky Forest” will recognize the same surrealist slapstick humour with. This time there appears to be more of narrative, although you would be hard-pressed to explain exactly how things tie together. We open with a group of three men discussing the merits of communal bathing, before discovering that they have been missing for two days. The film then returns to two days prior where we have the same three men, along with three sisters, and three young students, an alien craft suspended above the earth, talk of ‘dream-tampering’, and sexualised fruits growing from nyad-like creatures. Having the same groups of characters gives the film a sense of consistency and narrative, but this is confused by all the inexplicable oddities they encounter. The people of this world use nuts, which they pull from their belly buttons (because, why not?) as currency, and there are also a group of Lilliputian characters who live alongside the humans (or are they ordinary humans living in a land of giants?).

The film relies heavily on shock value and slapstick, deftly sidestepping Japan’s strict rules on pornography with its sexualised imagery (in particular the aforementioned fruits, and a gun that shoots white goop from a penis at the end). The main through-line of the film concerns the spaceship and a questioning of what dreams are and how they relate to everyday life. Several characters are keen to delve into the world of dream-tampering, which allows people to travel through space-time and live out their every fantasy. In contrast, others warn that this sort of tampering can lead to people being cursed in the real world. As with “Funky Forest” before, “Warped Forest” lends itself to interpretation through its abstract nature, like wandering through a gallery of modern art. Is there a significance to the small people, the exposed belly-buttons; the genital-like fruits that people are constantly licking at or suckling on? Much like a dream on waking, the film presents itself in a way that makes you curious to uncover the meaning behind the apparent madness, remaining just out of reach, but leaving you with a powerful emotional reaction to the imagery which, if nothing else, is extremely memorable.