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.

Memories of Matsuko (2006) by Tetsuya Nakashima

Sho (Eita) is something of a dropout, having moved to Tokyo to be a musician, he is stuck in a rut. His father (Teruyuki Kagawa), who he hasn’t seen for two years, arrives to tell him that his aunt, Matsuko (Miki Nakatani), has died. Matsuko was apparently murdered in a park. Sho arrives at her apartment to clear out and is met by her neighbour who tells him Matsuko was disliked by those around her, with poor hygiene and odd behaviours, including screaming for no apparent reason. Sho is intrigued by his aunt’s story and so begins a journey of discovery as we are whisked back in time to follow the young Matsuko through several decades of her life. Beginning as a child competing for her father’s affections with her ailing sister; then a short-lived career as a teacher; Matsuko goes through a number of violent relationships, always searching for happiness and a sense of belonging.

“Memories of Matsuko” is artistic, vibrant, and exuberant, blending elements of fantasy and musical sequences with moments of brutal realism. The plot is cleverly constructed, with flashback sequences and the wraparound story of Matsuko’s nephew delving into his aunt’s chequered past. It never loses momentum and the two elements work well together. The film will often have characters describe something that happened, and then go back to show it, creating an expectation of upcoming events. Far from undermining the tension, after all the audience knows from the beginning Matsuko’s fate, it heightens a feeling of tragic inevitability. Miki Nakatani’s performance is exceptional, a complex character dealing with trauma and tragedy. The direction is frantic, flashing imagery and bright, varicoloured sets, blinding lights glinting through windows. The opening sequence and the massage parlour musical number are an assault on the senses and there is always the feeling that you are being shown Matsuko’s own view of particular moments in her life, part real-life and part coloured by her emotions. The set design of filthy, rubbish strewn apartments, the digitally enhanced fantasy funfair, are superb in creating a visceral, impactful sense of the psychological made manifest. Part of the film’s brilliance is being able to move seamlessly between various tones. There are dark themes of domestic abuse and parental neglect, alongside comedic scenes and moments of transcendental joy and hope.

This film is a masterclass in film-making, creating a truly unique experience that is engaging from beginning to end. As Sho delves further into his aunt’s colourful and atypical life, he learns what it is to live and to love. Matsuko seems to be a victim of fate, moving from one abusive relationship to the next, and seeing any happiness she finds snatched away from her. There are references to Dazai Osamu, famous author and suicide, that connect to the central themes of struggling to find a meaning or purpose for life, while being on a self-destructive path. This is counterbalanced by the religious notions, most notably embodied by the character who carries around a Bible and is obsessed with the phrase “God is love”, that seems to offer a more hopeful outlook for humanity. It is hard to break down everything in the film as it is so packed with incidence, touching on societal issues such as the sex industry, patriarchy and male violence, faith, mental health, relationships, family, and the nature of memory. An incredible experience that utilises the art of cinema to tell a compelling film packed with raw emotion.

Gothic and Lolita Psycho (2010) by Go Ohara

The subculture of ‘gothloli’ is one that is perfectly suited to this brand of anarchic comedy-horror-action, blending as it does the cutesy cartoonish nature of Lolita with the darker gothic style. Yuki (Rina Akiyama) is a caricature of at typical goth-loli, bedecked in coquettish black Victorian frills, on a mission to avenge the death of her mother for unspecified motives. The film begins in an underground nightspot which seems to be somewhere between a disco, S and M club, and torture dungeon for gangsters. We see people tormented with a blow torch, cage-fighting, or playing an ultra-high stakes game where the penalty is killing a poor victim. This is the kind of establishment where a severed head squashed with a mallet brings a cheer rather than a scream. In this kind of environment, Yuki is hardly out of place. Her target: Sakie, a woman who is controlling the gambling in this establishment. Yuki’s weapon of choice is a lethal umbrella, bullet-proof and with a  sharp blade in the end. We see through flashbacks an attack on Yuki’s family that left her mother dead and her father, a priest, in a wheelchair. Yuki sets out to kill the five people responsible and perhaps find some answers.

Directed by Go Ohara and written by Hisakatsu Kuroki “Goth Loli Psycho” is silly low-budget fun and doesn’t pretend to anything more. We find that each of the characters seems to have paranormal abilities, either telekinesis or psychic powers. There are a few nice touches, such as Yuki burning tarot-style cards each time she dispatches one of her targets. The humour is slapstick but works for the most part, with some laugh-out-loud moments if you have a black sense of humour. The villains are distinguished enough from each other to make their encounters entertaining. There is plenty of action and the direction of the fights is well done. Visual effects are largely practical, and mostly work well, though budget constraints mean there are recognizable rubber heads and limbs. The CG effects are understandably poor, and an example of where suspension of disbelief, or turning a blind eye is required. Likewise, the locations of early fight sequences, a school gym and rooftop, seem a little uninspired. However, the underground nightclub and the climactic setting of the film are fantastic stages for the carnage. All of the actors know exactly how ludicrous the premise is and ham it up at every opportunity. The music has some fantastic choral arrangements for when Yuki executes a rival, playing into the style of the character.

Nobody watching a film called “Goth Loli Psycho” will be expecting high art. It has enough charm to make it entertaining, leaning more to the tongue-in-cheek comedy side than the extreme gore (although there is no shortage of blood on display). From the opening moments we know exactly what film we are getting and it rarely strays from the well-worn revenge film path. Worth checking out if you are looking for something wacky to pass the time.

Extro (2019) by Naoki Murahashi

Kozo Haginoya is a 64 year old who is signed up to a film extras agency called Lark. He is the subject of a documentary that is being filmed. Haginoya is something of a dreamer, hoping one day to be given the role of a fireman in a movie, like his acting hero Steve McQueen in the “Towering Inferno”. Despite having no discernible talent for acting, and generally being a disaster when it comes to doing what the director wants of him, he nevertheless seems content to keep trying. When it is discovered that there may be a man wanted in connection with drug dealing working at the same agency, two undercover detectives also decide to enter the world of extra work in order to catch the criminal.

“Extro” is a mockumentary that has several well-worked gags, often relying on subtle cringe humour rather than slapstick. Kozo Haginoya gives a fantastic comic performance playing it completely deadpan as with everyone else. While he is almost completely unable to follow direction, he has charm and a constantly upbeat attitude to everything, apologising to those around him for messing up the takes. The film features several professional actors and directors, including Nobuhiko Obayashi (House) and Yasufumi Terawaki. These help lend the mockumentary some credibility and the film definitely goes all out to make it look as genuine as possible. Most of the film revolves around the Ibaraki Edo Warp Station, a large reconstruction of an Edo-era town used in various films and television shows. Haginoya finds work as an extra in a couple of films, including one historical romantic drama. The film takes an odd turn in the latter half with the introduction of the police storyline, sidelining that of Haginoya. It feels as though the film-makers wanted something to give a sense of narrative. While this plot provides some great moments with the incompetent detectives becoming enamoured of their new ‘profession’, it is a shame that Haginoya’s story is shelved for a portion while this plays out. Many of the best gags are those that are character-driven or related to the problems with filming.

The film is a fun mockumentary on an ageing actor who is pursuing his dream with little concern about his ability or the possibility of achieving it. The entire cast give great performances and are entirely believable as extras at the Lark volunteer talent agency. While it loses its way a little in attempting to force the film into a narrative structure, there are many fantastic moments. It provides a peek behind the curtain at how films are made, gently yet warmheartedly poking fun at the acting profession.