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.

jam (2018) by Sabu

A blackly comic tale with three interconnected stories taking place over a single day. Enka singer Hiroshi (Sho Aoyagi) is kidnapped by a superfan, who forces him to record a new song for her; recently released from prison, Tetsuo (Nobuyuki Suzuki) is on a vengeful mission, attacked by the former gang members who left him to the police, while taking care of his ailing mother; and Takeru (Keita Machida) is a man who is attempting to do three good deeds a day in hopes that this will mean his comatose girlfriend recovers.

The film is very funny, though often with a dark twist, with kidnapping and violent street fights. All three of the stories are given time to develop and the way that they interconnect is interesting. The film begins with a sequence in which a man is driving an injured woman in a car, creating an instant sense of mystery. It later loops back to this same scene, now with the audience understanding who the characters are and the circumstances leading to this juncture. Much of the film takes place at night with characters wandering the city streets, and the cinematography does a great job of capturing the murky, dimly lit city. With three stories woven together the film has a good rhythm, intercutting between them and flowing from one to another. The script is written to create mystery about the characters and it gives the audience a chance to guess at what might have happened before given an explanation. In the story of Tetsuo the film is almost a straightforward crime action revenge film, while Hiroshi seems to be living in a black comedy, and Takeru a tragic relationship drama. The actors are do a good job with their characters, fully believable even in unbelievable situations. The various tones of each section should not work, but somehow they coalesce into something like a tableaux of warts-and-all modern life.

“jam” is a film about the interconnectedness of human experience and how ones actions impact on others. The three characters can be roughly categorises as good, bad and neutral, and there are explicit references to ideas of karma and fate. The world is populated by people with varying motivations and understandings of the world and their place in it. This is typified particularly by the Enka singer, whose fans seem to draw a deep meaning from the songs, while he has no real interest in the song order or their significance. It is about how society functions with so many diverse people, how they clash or work together, how good intentions can lead to bad outcomes, and every action has consequences. An enjoyable film that brings together three disparate characters and plots in a unique way.

Fly me to the Saitama (2019) by Hideki Takeuchi)

Manami (Haruka Shimazaki) is on her way from Saitama to Tokyo for her wedding. Her parents (Brother Tom and Kumiko Aso) turn on the radio in the car for the long journey and are tuned into a radio drama telling the urban legend of the history of Saitama and Tokyo’s long struggles. The radio play takes us back to a time when Saitamese were subjected to various mistreatments and discriminations at the hands of the Tokyoites, discriminating against those from other prefectures. Rei (Gackt) attempts to fight this injustice and create an equal society where Saitamese are treated the same as people from Tokyo, while the head of a prestigious Tokyo University, Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) is determined to maintain the status quo. The fight for acceptance will also lead the people of Saitama into conflict with their other major rival, the citizens of Chiba Prefecture.

“Fly me to the Saitama” is an outrageous comedy based on the ridiculous premise of a fantasy war between Saitama and Tokyo. It throws so much at this surreal story, including influences from various genres. We see everything from Tokyo university students dressed in renaissance period clothing, science-fiction dressed police officers with rayguns, Edo-period costumes, even dinosaurs. The film will do just about anything for a joke, with funny costumes, scenarios, wordplay, and visual gags. Much of the comedy relies heavily on local stereotypes, though the comedy is so broad that almost all audiences will find something to enjoy, the more people know about these places, the more funny they are likely to find it. The actors do a great job, with Fumi Nikaido and Gackt playing their roles perfectly straight-faced despite the madness around them. The film is directed by Hideki Takeuchi, based on the manga by Mineo Maya, and with a screenplay by  Yuichi Tokunaga. The script and performances are ironically a celebration of the creativity and good humour of everyone involved, showing an ability to laugh at themselves.

The film is a broad comedy, taking themes of discrimination and prejudice and showing them to be utterly ridiculous. It allows people to laugh at local stereotypes in the confidence that they are so outrageous that they are never cruel. The finale of the film has a simple yet poignant message of bridging divides between people and not allowing ourselves to be separated by self-imposed borders. A hugely enjoyable film that puts everything into finding the humour in how people look at each other and themselves.

Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san (2019) by Daisuke Ono

Lala Suzuki (Honoka Matsumoto) lives in rural Gunma with her mother and younger brother. Her main creative outlet is her YouTube channel, where she creates a bizarre character that she seems to carry on into her everyday life, including wearing an eyepatch and wandering around with a large mallet. When she receives a call to say that a television company wants to come and film her she sees her big chance, but her hopes are dashed when the company executives change their mind after seeing her videos and decide not to run the show. Lala’s frustrated, angsty behavior is explained when we discover that her twin sister, Lili, is a successful personality working in Tokyo, having succeeded at an interview which Lala failed.

Written and directed by Daisuke Ono, the film is ostensibly a comedy, but often feels more like an emotional drama as we watch Lala slowly succumbing to feelings of rage and resentment towards her sister. On first viewing the film can seem lacking in jokes, with a few sparse laughs and long stretches where little to nothing is happening. Lala seems disaffected and prone to aggressive outbursts. Her ‘comedic’ videos are largely unfunny, with her bizarre sense of humour almost impenetrable to anyone but herself. It becomes apparent only later in the film that this is not a comedy in the conventional sense, that we are actually not meant to laugh at Lala, but to sympathise with and perhaps even pity this character. She is a failure on her own terms, but unable to see why she is not famous or accept any other course than the stardom she feels she deserves. She feels ill-treated by the world. The film can be a difficult watch at times, and takes reflection to see the funny side of what is happening. The deadpan humour and drawn out jokes can seem impenetrable, but there are some fantastic lines and moments that have the feel of a cult classic in the making. Honoka Matsumoto gives a fantastic performance in twin roles as the disaffected Lala and the successful sister Lili, creating a believable tension between the two, even in scenes where she plays opposite herself. She is supported by a small cast including Mayuko Nishiyama and Taketo Tanaka as her long suffering mother and brother.

“Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san” is an offbeat comedy about someone who is struggling to succeed in a world that is obsessed with fame. The use of twins is a clever way to show that for every successful actor there are many more who will never be recognized and who will spend their lives as complete unknowns. This accounts for the film’s peculiar tone in that it is following the character who did not make it, who is not succeeding in fulfilling their goals, and who feels isolated, depressed and frustrated about her lack of recognition. There is a moment in the film when Lili is on television with a fake brother and mother played by actors (adding insult to injury, Lala is not portrayed at all in the family unit), and given a fictitious backstory. It shows the unreality of television. As Lala tells her student, everyone involved in the media is a liar. While the humour may be hit and miss, the performances are strong and by the end of the film you begin to sympathise with Lala’s situation.

Bento Harassment (2019) by Renpei Tsukamoto

Single mother Kaori (Ryoko Shinohara) comes up with a unique scheme to get back at her unresponsive teenage daughter, Futaba (Kyoko Yoshine). When Futaba refuses to speak to her, Kaori decides to create kyaraben (character bento), depicting everything from household products to famous comedians in an attempt to embarrass her daughter into communicating with her. As the days go on, the characters and messages in the lunchboxes get more outlandish and ridiculous as the two go head to head in a battle of wills.

“Bento Harassment” is a charming and often hilarious portrayal of a difficult mother daughter dynamic. The loss of her husband and troubled relationship with her daughter make Kaori a deeply sympathetic character. We are rooting for her from the beginning as we see her struggles to get her daughter through high-school (a seemingly thankless task) and hold down two separate jobs. Ryoko Shinohara gives a supremely enjoyable performance, showing the steely determination to not let her daughter get the better of her, and also tender moments as her actions are beneath it all driven by love for her child. Futaba is not an entirely unsympathetic character, and more so as the film progresses, we are shown a different side to her. Kyoko Yoshine is excellent in the role of a difficult teen whose cool exterior hides a deep respect for her mother. Rena Matsui is also good as Futaba’s older sister.

“Bento Harassment” comes up with an original and light-hearted way to show the hardships of motherhood. It also shows mouth-watering examples of the traditional lunchboxes with all manner of food on display as well as the picturesque island of Hachijojima. One running joke in the film is characters mentioning, in an offhand way, that Hachijojima is actually part of Tokyo (the rural island being at complete odds with the image of the sprawling metropolis). The cinematography and soundtrack are colourful and joyous and the whole film has a comfortable air that allows the audience to simply relax and enjoy the jokes and straightforward drama as it unfolds. There is a subplot in the film of a single father and his son that runs in concert with that of Kaori and her daughter, however, it is unusually only resolved post credits. There are also a couple of moments of fake credit sequences that break the fourth wall in a somewhat jarring way given that this type of humour is not present elsewhere. The film also takes a turn in its final act which seems like a manipulative and unnecessary attempt to add a degree of peril to the plot. However, the film is so packed with charm and humour that these issues are really only minor quibbles.

Screenwriter and director Renpei Tsukamoto’s film is an uplifting look maternal love and the trials of bringing up teenagers in a single-parent household. The two leads play perfectly off one another and capture the complex relationship of the mother and daughter, both the good and bad. The film’s ending may be predictable, the film is absolutely a drama that enjoys a comfortably safe plot structure, but it is nevertheless effective and impactful. Thanks to the performances and humour we are exasperated and frustrated along with the characters, fully invested in them with every annoying bento-box that is created and pried nervously open.