It’s a Summer Film! (2020) by Soshi Matsumoto

Uninmpressed with her school film club’s current project, a saccharine romance, ‘Barefoot’ (Marika Ito) along with her friends ‘Kickboard’ (Yumi Kawai) and ‘Blue Hawaii’ (Kurara Inori) sets out to make her own passion project, a samurai film inspired by classic black and white movies. She manages to recruit a motley crew for sound and lighting, and finds the perfect lead in the shape of the mysterious Rintaro (Daichi Kaneko), who suddenly appears in her life. As they are making their film, competing with rival Karin’s (Mahiru Koda) romantic drama, they discover that there may be more at stake than the film premiere at the upcoming school festival.

Directed by Soshi Matsumoto, with a screenplay by Matsumoto and Naoyuki Miura, “It’s a Summer Film!” is a charming love-letter to classic historical cinema with a meta twist. ‘Barefoot’ is an engaging protagonist, and Marika Ito’s energetic and expressive performance is enjoyable. She plays a typical outsider hero, with her interest in historical epics, short-cropped hair, and passion for cinema marking her out as a geek, in contrast with Mahiro Koda’s mainstream heroine Karin. There is great chemistry with the trio of ‘Barefoot’ and her friends, ‘Kickboard’, a member of the astronomy club, and kendo-club member ‘Blue Hawaii’. All three of them represent slightly unusual hobbies that bind them together. The story’s meta-element is not explicit, but the film itself follows many tropes of the teen romantic comedy: a rivalry with a more popular student; the outsider heroes; the third act declaration of love. There is certainly an irony that ‘Barefoot’ is attempting to make a samurai epic, but finds herself entangled in a romantic comedy in her relationship with Rintaro. Early in the film ‘Kickboard’ mentions making a science-fiction film and this element also finds it’s way into “It’s a Summer Film!” with the inclusion of a time-travel sub-plot, that functions to distinguish the film from other ‘film-making’ comedies. Most of the humour comes from the difficulty of making a film and the uncharacterstic, but inspiring, interest in high-quality samurai dramas over cheap romances of the lead characters.

“It’s a Summer Film!” is a lot of fun for people who love cinema. It’s subtle self-referential style, including a joke about one of the “students” looking like a 30-year old man, who they nickname ‘Daddy-Boy’, is entertaining without having to force the humour. The time-travel element is likely to split audiences, but works in the context of the meta-narrative, of a self-aware ‘summer film’ that falls into many of the same narrative cliches that they are simultaneously critiquing. ‘Barefoot’ discovers in the future that films are only 5-seconds long, and that there are no longer cinemas. This is probably the film’s most unsubtle criticism of modern trends in film-making, audiences’ dwindling attention spans and the preponderence of people consuming media on mobile phones in short bursts. Although “It’s a Summer Film!” hits all the notes of a typical high-school romantic-comedy, its charm and self-awareness make it supremely watchable. The likeable cast and light-touch comedy are comfortable and remind people of the enjoyment of watching films and the power of cinema to take you on a journey.

Shrieking in the Rain (2021) by Eiji Uchida

A first-time female director battles studio executives, chauvanistic crew members, and the ratings board, as she tries to bring her vision to life in this comedy-drama from Eiji Uchida. Hanako (Marika Matsumoto) is directing her debut film, an erotic thriller about love and betrayal. Lacking the confidence to stand up to her overbearing crew, consisting of older male lighting and camera operators, she feels as if she is losing control of the production as she navigates various vested interests such as the producer’s desire that it not be slapped with a restricted rating that will damage their box office takings. Hanako is far from the only member of the cast and crew struggling with the film. Older actress Kaede (Maeko Oyama) sees the film as her last chance to prove her acting ability, willing to go all the way in the final sex scene to show that she is a true artist; and Yoshie (Serena Motola), an aspiring camera woman, is facing the same sexism as Hanako.

“Shrieking in the Rain” is a comedy-drama film with an uplifting atmosphere reminiscent of a less cynical world. Set in 1988 it shows a film industry that is a very male-dominated environment, one in which Hanako’s ostensible power as a director is continually undermined by her lack of authority as a women with the men around her. Things perhaps haven’t changed enough in the industry to this day, but the choice of setting does allow the film-makers to push some of the behaviour, with women being smacked round the head or shouted at in front of the entire studio, to an extreme perhaps consigned to history. Most of the film takes place in the single film set or the nearby studio buildings. It has a behind-the-scenes feel as we watch what happens on the other side of the camera, with this motley crew working to capture the pivotal scenes of their movie. The cinematography by Kenji Noguchi, has a beautiful sunset feel of late-eighties nostalgia.

We often see Hanako surrounded by her crew and actors, visually establishing the power dynamics and the sense of pressure she feels from all sides. The three women who provide the backbone of the story, Hanako, Yoshie and Kaede, are all enjoyable characters with actors Marika Matsumoto, Serena Motola and Maeko Oyama giving powerful performances as women beset by an inhospitable world of entrenched sexism and self-important men. “Shrieking in the Rain” tackles these issues with a light touch, providing plenty of comedy to ensure that it never feels like a sermon on the wrongs of the film industry. This lighthearted approach to the drama is emphasized by the sentimental score, often indistinguishable from the melodrama of the film within a film. It is a testament ot the film’s whimsicality that the final sequence, an all-out song and dance number performed by the crew, does not seem out of place beside the more serious themes, not to mention the nudity and sex of the production they are filming.

The film recreates in the microcosm of this single film studio a sense of what many women in the workplace have to contend with. Hanako is far from incompetent, even though she is a newcomer to directing, but she is constantly chastised for her decisions, being asked why she needs another take or why she cannot simply change her plans for certain scenes to make them suitable for a general audience. It can be hard to understand why Hanako persists and it seems even she has her doubts about whether she is in the right job. A particular traumatic memory from her past seems to drive her creativity and determination to finish this film and this past trauma seems to chime particularly the other women on the production, although their own pasts remain unknown. Hanako’s relationship with Yoshie, who looks up to her as a female role model is touching and you find yourself willing them to succeed against the ignorant behaviour of the male crew. However, the film is far from a polemic against chauvanism, with many other aspects and subplots to enjoy. The foremost amongst them is the power of film itself to transport people, as the experienced actor Kazuto (Yuma Yamoto) explains to pop-idol Shinji (Kenta Suga), to another world. The introduction of a character working for the film classification board allows for some ridiculing of the often nonsensical rules defining lewdness or inappropriate behaviour in film. And Kaede’s character depicts the difficulties of aging in an industry obsessed with youth. A fantastic cast in a film packed with interesting characters, each showing an aspect of the film-making process or problems associated with it, “Shrieking in the Rain” is sure to entertain film fans looking for a lighthearted take on the industry.

The Girl Who Leapt Through Time (2006) by Mamoru Hosoda

Makoto (Riisa Naka) is a high-school student who is often late and a little disorganized. She spends her free time hanging out with her friends Kosuke (Mitsutaka Itakura) and Chiaki (Takuya Ishida), a recent transfer student. After slipping on something in the science laboratory, Makoto finds herself with the ability to travel back through time. Able to rectify mistakes, or simply avoid difficult situations, she enjoys trying out her newfound powers. After speaking with her aunt Kazuko (Sachie Hara), Makoto begins to wonder if she should be using this ability for something more important. As well as helping out fellow students, by setting them up on dates, she also wonders about her own relationship with her friend Chiaki.

“The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” is based on a 1960’s serialized novel by Yasutaka Tsutsui that has been adapted a number of times through the decades. This film version is directed by Mamoru Hosoda, with a screenplay by Satoko Okudera. Makoto is a fantastic heroine, a tomboyish figure who encapsulates a teenage energy, whether irritated by her sister eating her pudding, or confused by her own feelings for Chiaki. Her peculiarities help her feel like a real character, as opposed to a simple archetype. The animation is expressive and action-packed, including small moments of movement that capture a sense of realism. Also impressive are the background details, particularly in the crowd scenes of the town or Makoto’s school that give the feel of a lived-in world. This also makes the scenes when time is frozen later in the film more powerful, with a sudden realization that everything has stopped. Seeing birds hanging in the air, or ball games locked in time is surprisingly effective in comparison with the lively scenes that precede it. The story is relatively straightforward as a high-school romantic comedy, but does include a few twists with the inclusion of time-travel. There are moments that are best not to consider too deeply, as with many paradoxes thrown up by the notion of time-travel, but they work within the fantasy nature of the film.

In the latter half of the film the story takes on a more contemplative aspect, with time itself becoming a central figure, one which warps and changes the world. We learn that Chiaki is from a future where a particular painting no longer exists, and he also makes reference to there being far more people in the present world than the future. A slightly worrying statement that is not expanded on. We also see two moments when characters who would have died are given a second chance through time-travel. “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time” shows off the fun ‘what if’, but also brings us back to a consideration of what it means to be unable to return to former situations or change time (a reality Makoto must finally return to). We must learn to live with our mistakes, to seize the moment when it comes to romantic relationships, or friendships, in short to live without do-overs. The film ends on a bittersweet note that underlines the fact that it is about more than the comedy and romance, that it has a real message for the audience of grasping the present and setting yourself hopefully towards the future.

Baby Assassins (2021) by Yugo Sakamoto

Two high-school assassins attempt to develop covers as ordinary members of society in this action-comedy. Mahiro (Saori Izawa) and Chisato (Akari Takaishi) are skilled killers but lack any knowledge of the real world, having comfortably managed to maintain a front as high-schoolers while they carry out jobs for their mysterious employer, a man who delivers targets to them from time to time. They are told that they should move in together and start looking for part-time work, a prospect which doesn’t appeal to either of the girls. As they struggle to adapt, with Mahiro failing a series of interviews, and Chisato finding employment in a maid cafe, a fresh threat appears in the shape of a violent Yakuza boss and his children.

Written and directed by Yugo Sakamoto, your enjoyment of “Baby Assassins” will vary based on the mileage you get out of the comedic premise: the juxtaposition of hardened, efficient killers and absent-minded, socially-awkward teens. This whiplash from murder to mundanity provides much of the humour, with one scene showing them disposing of a corpse before moving immediately onto worrying if they have time to make the film they have tickets to. “Baby Assassins” wastes no time and at just over 90 minutes, it moves at a lively pace. This is understandable as the story is simplistic and the sadistic Yakuza villain is such a familiar archetype he hardly needs much introduction. The highlight of the film is the relationship between Chisato and Mahiro, with fantastic performances from Akari Takaishi and Saori Izawa. They capture the bored teen mindset and also look extremely competent in the action sequences, shifting seamlessly from cold-blooded murder to everyday concerns about ruining their clothes. This relationship also provides the emotional heart of the film as their differences lead to confrontation between them. Mahiro is introverted and slightly less well-suited to adult life, while Chisato is more bright and cheerful, easily able to adapt to part-time work at a maid cafe. The action sequences, courtesy of stunt director Kensuke Sonomura are gory and energetic, with emphasis again on the humour rather than any serious consequences, showcasing the girls’ training and utilising gun-fu and hand-to-hand combat. The final third is taken up with a highly entertaining takedown of the Yakuza orginization, which comedically undermines this fairly stereotypical third-act sequence by having the girls comfortably dispatch most of them, completely emasculating the hard ganster aesthetic. This ease in which the killings sometimes proves a double-edged sword, providing a few laughs at the casual way the girls deal with their targets, but also leaving little time for any real tension. This is most apparent in a scene in which two major villains are dispatched, their deaths used as a gag that comes as a surprise but leaves you feeling that the film has robbed you of a more significant confrontation between the heroes and villains.

“Baby Assassins” is a fun take on both the assassin genre and the teen friendship movie, running these parallel stories of Mahiro and Chisato attempting to get along as well as the background evil of the Yakuza. The best scenes are in the maid-cafe with Chisato taking to it easily, while Mahiro is visibly uncomfortable with attempting to present a cheerful face to the public. There is a subtle satire on the current state of work and how young people are supposed to adapt to society, brought out when the girls speak with the maid cafe staff. The top maid is amazed that they have so much money for lunch, barely able to afford a decent meal herself. The girls are financially stable through their assassination work, part of the reason why the jobs they are applying for hold so little interest for them. It is not something the film dwells on, but it certainly makes you wonder whether a world in which murder is remunerated far better than almost any other job is one that is functioning correctly. There is also a feminist bent to the film, with the young women being constantly underestimated by their targets, which makes it even easier for the girls to kill them. The film sets up two entertaining characters, with enjoyable central performances, and it is a film that lends itself perfectly to sequels. While the film is light on story, it works well as an introduction to the characters and world and it would be great to see more of them.

Cowboy Bebop (1998)

Spike Spiegel (Koichi Yamadera) and Jet Black (Unsho Ishizuka) are bounty hunters and the sole crew of the spaceship Bebop. The show opens with plenty of questions as to their backgrounds and relationship, not least in the intriguing noirish flashbacks we see featuring Spike. The pair live in a precarious financial situation, chasing bounties that just about ensure they have enough food to live. Their crew is later expanded when they unwittingly come into posession of a Shiba dog with  expermentally enhanced intelligence named Ein; and later a woman on the run from serious debts named Faye Valentine (Megumi Hayashibara). Their motley crew gains another member when an orphaned super-hacker named Edward (Aoi Tada) joins them.

The strength of “Cowboy Bebop” is in its blend of genres, part-noirish crime thriller, part-western, with elements of science-fiction and comedy. This allows for a variety of storylines and the majority of episodes are stand alone, both narratively and thematically. The stories are fast-paced, necessarily so as they set up fresh villains, problems, concepts, worlds and solutions in the space of a single episode. There are a few episodes that could be considered throwaway or filler, such as the horseriding bounty hunter, but the majority do a great job in creating a novel challenge and cast of secondary characters that keep things interesting. One unusal aspect of the characters is that they seem quite isolated from themselves, more so than the usual odd couple relationship, they are simply five individuals who happen to be thrown together and the series only briefly touches on the relationships between them. Some of the best episodes are those that uncover the backstories of Jet, Spike and Faye, as these give a much-needed emotional counterweight to the visual bombast of gunfights and chase sequences.

From the opening double-bass strains of the theme song, the “Cowboy Bebop” score perfectly captures the atmosphere of a space western, with a fusion of twanging guitars and jazz. Most episodes have a musical link in the title and the score is clearly a huge part of the enjoyment of the show, giving it a sense of style and paying homage to great science fiction and western films. The visuals likewise exudes cool, with instantly recognizable characters whose design speaks to their character. It is also fun to note references to contemporary brands in the backgrounds. The animation of the fight sequences is one of the highlights of the series, with an incredible sense of movement and danger. This is helped immensely by some stunning editing that bolsters the frenetic sense of danger. All parts work in tandem, the design, editing and score, to create something that is eye-catching and engaging.

“Cowboy Bebop” gives us a future that is far from utopian, using its platform to comment on contemporary societal problems with a depressing prognosis that things are not heading in a postive direction. We see ecological catastrophe in the shape of asteroids that have decimated the planet earth; the ills of privatised medicide and unscrupulous companies; corruption rife in the government and police systems; and overall a lawless society where morality is ever shifting. References to both science-fiction and western genres, representing the future and the past, further emphasises this sense that humanity is doomed by the same weaknessess that have dogged its past, such as greed, crime, and selfishness. Despite advances in technology in the show, the society itself has failed to progress, with outlaws, bandits and criminals still barely kept under control, and an almost imperceptible line between bounty hunting vigilantes and offical law enforcement. This focus on time also plays a prominent role in Faye’s story and asks interesting questions on who we are and where we are going. Faye, suffering amnesia, is perhaps the best representative of the show’s philosophy as a whole, with no idea of either her past or her future. Human’s in “Cowboy Bebop” are simply buoyed along by the vicissitudes of fate, struggling against a deeply unfair system. A fantastic action sci-fi western with bags of charm, enjoyable characters, and a pointed satire on contemporary society.