Ikiru (1952) by Akira Kurosawa

A terminal diagnosis sharpens the attention of an elderly council worker, leading him to question what his life has been for. Mr. Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is section head at the public liasons office of the city council. His life is one of endless drudgery, filling out forms, stamping documents, and overly bureaucratic systems that never seem to accomplish anything important. A widower, Watanabe lives with his son, Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and his wife, whose only consideration is how his pension money may help them buy their own house. After receiving a diagnosis of stomach cancer and realising he has perhaps only 6 months left, Watanabe is understandably distraught, considering suicide, when he has a chance encounter with an author (Yunosuke Ito). This younger man shows him the delights of the city, playing his ‘Mephistopheles’ for the night as he introduces him to the joys of gambling, drinking and women. Watanabe also begins a relationship with his younger female co-worker Toyo (Miki Odagiri), whose joie de vivre contrasts starkly with his own dreary existence. Inspired by her, and still grasping for purpose, Watanabe returns to work and sets about pushing through citizens proposals for a children’s play park.

“Ikiru”, written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, who worked on the screenplay with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, is a perfectly balanced human drama, creating a timeless character in Watanabe. He is a man who finds himself in a familiar position, having given 25 years of his life to a job that he has little personal interest in, for a son who seems not to care for him, while doing little for himself. The stomach cancer, while a tragic occurence, spurs him to action. The central performance by Takashi Shimura is wonderfully nuanced, as he copes with feelings of fear, regret, and loneliness, balanced by occasional levity and a hard-headed determination that grows with the acceptance of his morality. The supporting cast play off him excellently, never detracting from his struggle, but offering a reflective mirror through which to see Watanabe. Shimura’s Watanabe looks to them for some sort of answer to his question of what he should be doing with the short time he has left. Each has their own perspective, showing that there are no easy answers for Watanabe, but at the same time they encourage him to see the value of pursuing something meaningful to him. The story is told with ample use of montages, giving a sense of a bustling world and creating a fully rounded character in Watanabe. In his relationship with Toyo and Mitsuo, we see the various aspects that make up a person, and in the later flashbacks as his colleagues remember him we get a similar sense of his character. In Watanabe’s final moments, we also see the importance of personal happiness, in fulfilling something you know is worthwhile, in spite of what others say about you, or whether you receive credit for it.

Kurosawa’s direction with cinematographer Asakazu Nakai produces some incredibly evocative moments, with the sillhouetted figures on the bridge, the office that is creaking under the weight of piled papers reflecting the enormity of concepts such as time and mortality. The script avoids unnecessary exposition, instead focussing on the human reactions to tragedy. Watanabe never explicitly states why he changed his opinion on life, or suddenly found a second wind, but it is made clear through Shimuras performance and his encounters with the other characters. Toyo showing him the children’s toy her factory makes is another great example of the film guiding us through visually and emotionally, as well as his nickname is ‘The Mummy’, which needs no further explanation. A stunning rumination on mortality and humanity that has an inspiring message for viewers depsite the seemingly depressing themes. The title of the film says it clearest, this is not a film about dying, but about living.

Somebody’s Flowers (2021) by Yusuke Okuda

A sombre drama about loss and dementia. Takaaki’s (Shinsuke Kato) is left to look after his elderly parents after his brother Kento dies in a car accident. His father Tadayoshi (Choei Takahashi) has dementia, often wandering off, calling Takaaki by his brother’s name, and forgetting what he is doing; while his wife Machi (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) does her best to care for him. When a new family, the Kusumotos, move into their apartment block, tragedy strikes when the father is fatally injured by a falling flower pot, leaving his wife, Akari (Misa Wada), and young son, Sota (Ruse Ota), to cope with his loss. Takaaki begins to suspect that it may have been Tadayoshi who dropped the flower pot, although his father shows no signs of remembering the incident. Takaaki attempts to protect his father by lying and terminating the contract of his home helper, Satomi (Honoka Murakami), who is also suspicious.

Written and directed by Yusuke Okuda, based on personal experience of a family member with dementia, “Somebody’s Flowers” is an often touching and tragic drama that looks at a serious social issue. The depiction of Tadayoshi’s condition is sensitive while tackling the strain it puts on his wife and son. Choei Takahashi’s performance as the elderly Tadayoshi, with unsure steps, repetitive statements, and absent expression, capture the peculiar vulnerability of those suffering memory loss. The rest of the cast, Kazuko Yoshiyuki as his loving wife, and Takaaki as his morally conflicted son, whose feelings towards his father move from exasperation to concern, do a fantastic job creating a sense of a family unit doing their best to carry on after the death of Kento and the deteriorating condition of Tadayoshi. The film’s inciting incident, the death of Akari and Sota’s father and husband, gives the film a semblance of plot, but for the most part it is a more documentary-like exploration of these characters and their experiences. The scenes at the grief councelling group consolidate this documentary style as the participants give their thoughts on bereavement. “Somebody’s Flowers” leaves the audience to decide where they stand on the issues presented, particularly concerning the guilt of Tadayoshi, while creating scenes that brim with emotionality. The direction and framing heighten the impact of each scene, with an emphasis on character viewpoints guiding the audience through and offering varied perspectives on what has happened. The minimalist score breaks in rarely to set the scene, but never undermines the realism of the story. A scene late in the film, in which Tadayoshi believes he is talking to his lost son Kento, and encourages Takaaki to speak with his brother, is effecting in its simplicity and again succeeds on the strength of the main cast, capturing the complex emotions of the characters.

“Somebody’s Flowers” is a film in the vein of Koji Fukada’s “Harmonium”, dealing with a difficult social issue, with a story that doesn’t attempt to sensationalise or rationalise on behalf of the characters. We are presented with a situation that engenders sympathy for the protagonists, struggling with dementia and taking care of someone with the condition. It asks difficult questions about guilt, blame and responsibility, loyalty, loss and forgiveness. In the case of Tadayoshi he is incapable of taking responsibility for his actions, almost childlike in his innocence and unconscious of his own actions. In the survivor’s group we see people still struggling to forgive the perpetrators of the accidents that took their loved ones; while Takaaki must contemplate the possibility that his father is a murderer (albeit unwittingly). “Somebody’s Flowers” creates a powerful emotional drama about death and dementia that asks the audience to consider their own feelings on the issues it raises.

Bittersand (2021) by Tomoya Sugimoto

When scurrilous rumours are written about high-school student Eriko (Ayane Kinoshita), classmate Akito (Yuki Inoue) decides to take the blame. This seemingly frivolous decision leads to seven years of regret as Akito is unable to forget what happened following the incident. Now grown up, Akito’s friend, Yusuke (Riku Hagiwara), an amateur film-maker suggests using their high-school experiences as the focus of a documentary, and the two attend a reunion with plans of revealing all about what really happened.

“Bittersand”, requires suspension of disbelief that the rumours surrounding Eriko would have led to her total ostracisation and would still be relevant to the characters seven years later. Sadly, the moment of revelation is more likely to provoke a shrug rather than any sense of surprise. If something more serious than the juvenile relationship troubles and teenage pregnancy were the reason for the class still harbouring any interest in what happened, it could have been more impactful. The film itself even appears to acknowledge this with one fellow former-student laughing off Akito and Yusuke’s presentation and wondering why the others aren’t willing to simply get on with the reunion afterwards. The film misses a chance to focus on things that would be more interesting, such as why one characters physical appearance changes drastically, how one character managed to raise a child as a teen mother, or even giving us an insight into how the original incident affected the characters. The film is not all bad, with a mixed bag of performances, and some great direction. Perhaps the worst you could say about the film is that it is underwhelming; that it answers questions that the audience weren’t interested in asking.

One of the themes of “Bittersand” is how memories and experiences can linger and affect our later lives. Even something as seemingly insignificant as the events of Akito’s high-school years stay with him. The use of frequent flashbacks is an effective way to show this, emphasising the idea that past and present are inextricably interlinked, and our consciousness often drifts from one to the other without distinction. As discussed the film often misses out on exploring its most interesting elements. The ideas of infidelity, regret, the importance of the truth and the impact of malicious rumours, and the unreliability of memories, are left to wither on the vine. A fairly innocuous young adult melodrama that will appeal to people who like high-school gossip. The moment of exposure, with a criminal investigation style chart up on the blackboard is absurdly over-the-top, perhaps suggesting that the film is intentionally comedic.

Harmful Insect (2001) by Akihito Shiota

After her mother attempts suicide, schoolgirl Sachiko Kita (Aoi Miyazaki) begins skipping school, finding companionship with two homeless men in the neighbourhood. Her schoolfriend Natsuko (Yu Aoi) doesn’t give up on her, calling at her house every day before school. As well as her mother’s health, rumours also circulate concerning a relationship Sachiko had with her sixth-gradge teacher Mr. Ogata (Seichi Tanabe), with whom she remains in correspondence.

“Harmful Insect”, written by Yayoi Kiyono and directed by Akihiko Shiota, is a character-driven drama focussing on the peculiar circumstances of Sachiko’s life. The film is light on dialogue in a way that echoes Sachiko’s inability to express herself to those around her, including her mother and Natsuko. Most of her feelings are expressed in the letters to Ogata and his responses to her, but these are also often shrouded in metaphor. This lack of explicit answers leaves us desperate to learn more about the characters and attempting to piece together a cohesive picture from the hints we are given. The direction itself is a major key to solving many of the mysteries of Sachiko’s character, with often jarring cuts, the isolation of characters through framing, giving us an insight into how she perceives the world. Aoi Miyazaki’s Sachiko is a conflicted character, neither a traumatised youth nor a delinquent teen, her circumstances are troubling and yet she still has the fortitude to continue.

The film deals with several difficult themes, including suicide, sexual predators and rape, without moralising, instead providing an intresting character study that gives the audience time to consider what Sachiko is experiencing and how it might impact on her. Sachiko’s drawing books at random from a bookshelf; her letters to Ogata detailing dreams of a starless sky; her rebellious behaviour and her decisions to skip school and return, all provide subtle hints of a complex individual attempting to regain control in a life that has taken much of it from her.

Aristocrats (2020) by Yukiko Sode

Two women from different social classes become romantically involved with the same man in this feminist fable. Hanako Haibara (Mugi Kadowaki) is the daughter of a doctor whose recent separation from her fiance is met with disappointment by her family. Her friends and parents begin to set her up on a series of blind dates, one of which, arranged by her brother-in-law, is with the charming Koichiro Aoki (Kengo Kora). Hanako falls immediately for Koichiro and the two soon arrange to be married. However, she discovers that he is having an affair with a woman named Miki Tokioka (Kiko Mizuhara). Miki is from a working class family, but studied at the prestigious Keio University where she met Koichiro. Through a mutual aquaintance, Hanako and Miki meet one another to discuss what to do, a meeting that gives them both pause to think about their lives and how they have been impacted by Koichiro.

Based on Mariko Yamauchi’s novel, “Aristcrats” is almost two parallel films that play out with little overlap. The film is chaptered, with alternate chapters following Hanako and then Miki. The novel was serialised in a monthly magazine, and director Yukiko Sode allows the narrative to play out in an unhurried way that draws us into the lives of the two protagonists. The two women only meet twice in the whole film, for brief scenes, but this parallel structure allows us to contrast and compare their lives and choices. The cinematography gives a sense of wealth and luxury, with many high-class locations shown to best advantage, brightly lit with little movement reflecting the characters’ stiff social niceties. The classical score by Takuma Watanabe further emphasises this sense of an upper-class sensibility. The elegant surroundings of Hanako’s life, with expensive restaurants, jazz clubs, and summer retreats, are in stark contrast to the conditions of Miki’s life, her disorganized working-class home very different to the sterile environs of Hanako’s world. Mugi Kadowaki’s Hanako is a character who is trapped in a gilded cage, with few concerns about money; she is instead troubled by not living up to her family or husband’s expectations, her lack of a child, and perceived lateness in getting married. Both Kadowaki and Kiko Mizuhara give fantastic performances as women forced to follow social norms against their wills. The women are rarely confronted by serious problems, but the mundane, everyday sexism they face builds an incredible pressure that shapes the way they look at the world. Their friends, Itsuko and Rie, played by Shizuka Ishibashi and Rio Yamashita, are also interesting characters, representing women who are emancipated from the expectations of people around them. They offer a fun counter-point to the protagonists, being forthright in their determination to follow their own path in life rather than that set out for them by others.

“Aristocrats” offers an interesting look at the class divide in Japanese society, drawing a clear distinction between those fortunate enough to be born to wealthy families, living a life of afternoon teas and country homes; and those at the lower end of the income scale, who struggle for everything they have. Despite the difference in background, Hanako and Miki both face similar problems as women: the pressure to marry and have children, the expectation that they will submit themselves to their husband or partners will, and in short that they are there as little more than window dressing for the men around them (as Miki spells out to Itsuko during their conversation). Both women are trapped by circumstance, forced into societal obligations and unable to make their own decisions. Both have a friend who displays an alternative way of life. Hanako’s friend Itsuko is an independent woman, travelling the world playing violin, who shows little interest in settling down; while Miki’s friend Rie, dreams of starting her own business, and not being bound by the financial constraints that have bedevilled Miki. At heart the film is about finding freedom and making your own choices. It’s stark depiction of rigid morality seems out of place in the modern world, and the film’s commentary on these outdated beliefs provides a powerful indictment of the patriarchal system that persists in modern society. An enjoyable film with great central performances that depicts the reality for a lot of women while offering hope that things could be different and are perhaps changing, albeit slowly.