Tiger: My Life as a Cat (2019) by Masaya Kakehi

Suzuo (Hiromitsu Kitayama) is a struggling manga artist. His most famous work, “Cat-Man”, has stalled before publication of the final volume. Suzuo has no interest in finishing this project, instead spending his time gambling at pachinko or the racecourse. Also, he hates cats and only drew the comic because he knew it would sell. His wife, Natsuko (Mikako Tabe), and daughter, Miyu (Kokoro Hirasawa) remain devoted to him despite his apparent laziness and inability to stick to his deadlines. When he is hit by a car and killed he is allowed to return to earth as a cat and manages to become part of Natsuko and Miyu’s lives again, although they remain largely unaware of his presence. He is helped by fellow cat, Whitest (Marie Itoyo), who teaches him what it means to comfort his family.

Based on the manga by Mina Itaba, with a screenplay by Toshiya Ono, this family film about losing a parent manages to balance lighthearted humour with some challenging themes. It is clear early on that Suzuo and Miyu’s relationship is loving. Despite his failings as a father she looks up to him, emulating him by drawing her own manga. The film’s central conceit is handled well with Kitayama dressed in a cat costume, rather than relying on digital effects. We do occasionally see him as an actual cat, but the choice to have him play the character in costume allows for much more emotional scenes between him and his daughter. The lack of flashy special effects also means that you are not distracted from the story and the acting can shine. Many of the scenes rely on the performances and dialogue as opposed to slapstick or low-brow comedy, such as when Suzuo arrives at the judgement desk of heaven, which is played as an amusing two-handed sketch between him and the judge, played by comic writer and actor Bakarhythm. Hiromitsu Kitayama’s comedic performance is highly entertaining, moving on from the initial fish-out-of-water humour when he is first reincarnated, to character driven humour and pathos. Young actor Kokoro Hirasawa is incredible as his daughter and provides the film an emotional core with some heart-breaking scenes between her and her father. “Tiger” is often surprisingly well shot for a film that is a knockabout comedy. The sequence when Suzuo chases the ambulance, or the scenes through the window, the warm room stark against the darkening night, show the filmmakers taking even a surreal comedy like this seriously.

“Tiger” is a film about dealing with the loss of a parent. Miyu, perhaps even more so than Suzuo, becomes the centre of the drama as she tries to come to term with her father’s death. Despite feeling ashamed of his behaviour at times she remains devoted to him and his sudden death forces her into reconciling her emotions and understanding her relationship with him. There is also a theme of what we are able to give to others. Suzuo is asked by the judge in the afterlife what he intends to do if he is given the chance to return and it is only later he realises what his role is for his daughter. As Suzuo explains to Whiteness, when she also has to deal with a bereavement, sometimes just being there is enough. For a film aimed at children the difficult themes are not glossed over. The use of reincarnation is not used as a way to sidestep the tragic inevitability of death, but rather offers a way of dealing with the grief it causes those who remain. The death of Suzuo is brutal and final and the film’s exploration of his passing is refreshingly unsentimental, giving us a look at coping and moving on for those left behind.

Blue, Painful, Fragile (2020) by Shunsuke Kariyama

Ryo Yoshizawa and Hana Sugisaki star in this young adult drama about two students with big dreams. Kaede Tabata (Yoshizawa) maintains a philosophy of absolute non-engagement, his belief being that if you do not connect with people you can’t hurt them or be hurt by them. This all changes when he meets Hisano Akiyoshi (Sugisaki), a bright and socially conscious classmate. Hisano is someone who believes in changing the world for the better, ending poverty, war and discrimination. The two decide to begin a club called Moai, with the intention of running social events and improving things in a small way. However, as the club becomes larger it evolves into a group for connecting students with potential employers, and Kaede is forced to reassess whether he really wants to be a part of this more corporate club or whether it should continue at all.

While the film contains elements of romantic comedy drama, it also has a strong message about social issues and the difficulties in trying to make positive change in the world. The two protagonists are diametrically opposed in their worldviews, one a pessimist who believes change is impossible and that the best approach is simply not to try and alter things; and the other convinced that everyone can make a difference to the world. It is fun to watch the dynamic between these two, helped by great performances by Ryo Yoshizawa and Hana Sugisaki. Their clashing personalities make both their friendships and the disagreements between Kaede and Hisano feel genuine. The supporting cast, including Amane Okayama as Kaede’s friend Tosuke, Honoka Matsumoto and Nana Mori do a great job as idealistic young characters who . Yoshizawa and Okayama work great as the friends, with many of the funniest scenes together. The plot has a couple of twists that make it more interesting than an average drama. It flicks back and forth over the space of two years to show what the club was and what it became, which helps create a sense of mild intrigue as to what happened in the intervening time. The film is rarely entirely serious in tone, even when it touches on more serious themes of corruption, sexual harassment and abuse of power, instead remaining firmly in the comfortable territory of soft focus, brightly lit scenes featuring a cast always looking their best.

“Blue, Painful, Fragile” is a film that really captures the personalities of its characters and their relatable dilemmas in attempting to work co-operatively. It covers a number of issues that will be particularly pertinent to its younger target audience, including the social issues such as climate change, poverty, discrimination and war; the issues of corporatism corrupting any potentially benevolent social enterprise; data privacy; sexual harassment and mistreatment of women. But at its heart it is the central conflict between the two leads that drives the story. People are problematic, with their own jealousies and insecurities jeopardizing any attempts to do good. The film shows us that Kaede is kind hearted in his desire to do no harm, but his reticence to engage means he is also not making any positive contribution to society. On the contrary, Hisano wants to do good, but unwittingly ends up creating something that evolves into an organisation that has little to do with her high-minded ideals.

Samurai Shifters (2019) by Isshin Inudo

A daimyo (feudal lord) is forced to move province on the orders of the shogun in this historic comedy drama. Lord Matsudaira (Mitsuhiro Oikawa) of Himeji receives word that he is to move his entire clan to a smaller distant province. This means a halving of their revenue and a vast logistical challenge. Matsudaira enlists the help of a librarian, Harunosuke (Gen Hoshino), who is tasked with organising the move and cutting costs. Harunosuke is helped by Oran (Mitsuki Takahata), a single mother whose father Ikuta led the last great clan move 15 years before; and his friend and fellow samurai Takamura (Issey Takahashi). Harunosuke is faced with various problems, not least of which is to tell many samurai that they are to be left behind as farmers, as the new province will not be able to support them.

You may think it would be difficult to make an interesting film about moving house, and you would be absolutely correct. The film’s central issue is that the stakes are relatively low and there is little suspense. While Harunosuke’s task is monumental, we only rarely see the human cost of this venture. The comedic take on events is perhaps the best that they could have done with the story, but also goes to undermine the challenge they face. One of the best scenes is when a samurai is asked to discard many of his prized possessions, priceless ancient artefacts that nevertheless have little to no use outside of ornamentation. This is one of the few moments when we see genuine distress at the thought of what they are losing, albeit still played for laughs. In a fight scene later in the film, the clowning and family friendly nature of the film again mean that it is hard to feel any sense of danger. Towards the end the film attempts to underline its themes about belonging and the importance of a sense of community, but it comes late and with little to back it up. Harunosuke returns to those left behind at a point when they are only able to tell us what they have been through, rather than showing us the effects of Harunosuke’s decisions. Similarly, any sense of the enormity or difficulty of this move is somewhat undermined as they subsequently move several more times in the film in a brief expository scene. Harunosuke is a likeable character, played by popstar Gen Hoshino who brings charm and charisma to the bumbling everyman role. Issey Takahashi and Mitsuki Takahata are also supremely enjoyable in their supporting roles, playing very much the by-the-numbers friend and love interest. The film does a good job at recreating the period, but the stages and costumes often feel like just that rather that presenting a believable setting.

“Samurai Shifters” gives us a look at an unusual practice of the period, albeit an exaggeration of the historical reality. At heart the film is about discovering what is important in life. The samurai who is forced to part with many of his possessions, and Harunosuke himself who is forced to destroy many of his prized books, emphasise this most clearly. It is the people that make the clan what it is, rather than any objects or place. The film also offers some commentary on the role of class and status in a historical context, with Oran’s father receiving little reward for his duties as he was not of the samurai class. The most moving moment of “Samurai Shifters” is when Harunosuke returns to those samurai who were left behind, who have now become peasant farmers, cultivating the land and raising families in their former domain. Their realisation that this ostensibly poorer lifestyle in fact makes them infinitely richer due to the happiness it has brought them is a message that deserved more time. “Samurai Shifters” rarely drags in terms of the narrative and features many enjoyable performances, but it is unlikely to be a film that is received with much enthusiasm.

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.