Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016)

Futaba Sachino (Rie Miyazawa) lives with her daughter Azumi (Hana Sugisaki). The bathhouse they used to run is now closed after her husband (Joe Odagiri) ‘vanished like steam’ a year ago. When Futaba is given a devastating diagnosis of terminal cancer she goes to find her former partner, who is now living alone with his daughter Ayuko. The two come to live with Futaba and Azumi and they re-open the bathhouse. With little time left Futaba endeavors to set her affairs in order, uncovering a family secret and making sure that the two girls are taken care of.

Written and directed by Ryota Nakano, “Her Love Boils Bathwater” is a poignant yet uplifting story about the value of kindness. There are as many moments to make you smile as to weep and it treads a delicate balance between sentimentality and realism. All of the characters are given a backstory, however small, and the script does a good job of weaving together various subplots into a coherent narrative. The entire cast do an admirable job of creating believable family dynamics. Rie Miyazawa is a caring and compassionate mother dealing with the shock of her sudden illness. Remaining strong for her children, while displaying an inner turmoil and sense of loss, the character of Futaba provokes real empathy and love for her determination. Hana Sugisaki shines as Azumi, dealing with her own problems at school and later taking on responsibilities for many of the other characters. She is a mirror to Miyazawa’s kindness and strong-willed nature, while also retaining an independent spirit. Out of all the characters she undergoes the greatest journey, from shy and awkward schoolgirl to a confident surrogate mother to her family. The rest of the cast are all excellent, particularly Aoi Ito as Ayuko, who does an incredible job with very emotionally challenging material. The direction of the film is good, allowing the actor’s performances to shine. There is interesting use of cut-aways, to the chimney of the bathhouse, which may also resemble a crematorium chimney, or blue skies with clouds floating by. Discussion of the afterlife in the film is minimal, largely revolving around one young character whose mother is deceased. Religious notions are largely superceded, explicitly at the end, by a more humanist philosophy amongst the characters, that the reality of everyday love and joy is something that should be cherished over a belief in heaven.

“Her Love Boils Bathwater” is a moving portrait about life and family set against the backdrop of an imminent death. This prognosis early in the film sets everything in context for the audience, although certain characters remain unaware of it until later. However, it is not a film that dwells on death so much as an examination of the joy of life. Although there are powerfully emotional scenes, there is also a lot of subtle humour and tender moments between mother and daughter or the two sisters that emphasize the idea that life is precious and each moment has the potential for joy. The film features several characters who are without a mother, though cared for by other characters. The importance of parental affection from those other than the biological parents is an important theme. This is generalized more widely into the notion of the paramount importance of kindness in society. Futaba’s relations with everyone she meets are typified by this more than anything, her ability to forgive, and her resolve to keep going through adversity. In the final section of the film we see this kindness repaid by those she has touched. An emotional film that is a celebration of the best of human nature, a plea for kindness in a world of misfortune.

Killing (2018)

Mokunoshin Tsuzuki (Sosuke Ikematsu) is a samurai boarding in a village of rural farmers. He has a relationship with one of the women in the village, Yu (Yu Aoi), and spars with her brother Ichisuke (Ryusei Maeda) daily. Their peaceful existence is interrupted by the appearance of another samurai, Jirozaemon Sawamura (Shinya Tsukamoto), whom they witness defeating another man in a duel. Sawamura conscripts the Mokunoshin and Ichisuke to join him on a trip to Edo and Kyoto, which they agree with, Mokunoshin reluctantly and Ichisuke happily. Sadly, their plans are disrupted by the appearance of a group of ronin whom the villagers fear are there to rob them. Events soon turn violent and Tsuzuki is caught up in a world of death that he had avoided until then.

Written and directed by Shinya Tsukamoto, “Killing” is on the surface a simple samurai story, though with a dark subtext. The sets and costume design are perfectly evocative of the period and the score by Chu Ishikawa compliments the action perfectly with drums and traditional instrumentation. Where the film strays from the well-trodden path of other samurai dramas is in its arthouse aesthetic. The story is pared back to its essentials, that is to say it is about the taking of life and what this means for the person who does it. The sword-fighting and sparring sequences are well-choreographed and have a fluidity and intensity that makes them a joy to watch. When real swords are used, the film does not shy away from blood spatter and some wince-inducing injuries. There is also humour, often darkly comic, employed to great effect. Tsukamoto is a director with a unique style and will often use a conventional idea in an unusual way. One example is in a scene between Tsuzuki and Yu, that is both tender and erotic without being explicit. It also, as with many other scenes, manages to capture wordlessly yet perfectly exactly what the relationship is between the characters. Dialogue is often sparse with the performances speaking for themselves and the cast do an excellent job with their roles. Ikematsu is brooding and troubled with the path he is set on; Yu Aoi is a tough foil for him, the emotional mirror to the seemingly cold samurai characters. Tsukamoto himself is suitably intimidating as the deadly swordsman, almost personifying death itself. Certain stylistic flourishes, such as darkening the camera, are used sparingly but to great effect throughout. The film’s simplicity may not appeal to everyone, but it allows the themes room to breathe and allows the audience to experience the emotional turmoil of the characters without the need to follow excessive characters or subplots.

As the title suggests, this is a film about killing. Tsuzuki is a man who shies away from violence. His life in the village, despite daily training, is an easy one and he appears comfortable. Sawamura’s appearance is almost like a dark spirit descending on the villagers. The notion of a spirit becomes more apparent at the very end of the film as an unseen force seems to be drifting through the forest searching for its next victim. Sawamura tells Tsuzuki that to not use his sword makes it meaningless. He exists to kill. In this way Sawamura represents the very evil of murder itself, appearing in this rural idyll and setting of a catastrophic chain of events. “Killing” also discusses the theme of revenge, whether it is ever justified and whether a cycle of revenge can ever be broken. ‘Kill or be killed’ is an oft used phrase, but this film exposes the horror of the sentiment in recognizing that there is no good option. Of course, most would consider killing to be preferable, but that leads to a loss of self that is almost as devastating as being killed. “Killing” examines this moral conundrum in a way that leaves a lasting impression, building to a darkly satisfying climax. The film is a philosophical take on the popular samurai genre that dissects what it means to kill and whether killing strips us of our humanity.

(Not) Perfect Human (2015)

Two brothers, Masato and Jun, are out on a hike in the woods when Jun slips. This results in Jun becoming partially paralysed. Jun lives at home with his younger brother Masato as his carer. Finding physical relationships difficult due to his impairment, Jun is consoled by online interactions with a young woman (though their video communication is only from her side). Masato pays for a service from “Care Hands”, a company that specialize in relieving disabled patients by masturbation. When a new “Care Hands” worker, Yoko arrives, Jun finds himself drawn to her. His sexual frustrations turn to jealousy of his brother, whose relationship with his own girlfriend is far from perfect.

The film is directed by Kuwazuru Yuki and stars Kunhiro Koyama and Kosuke Komura. The plot is certainly a little unusual, dealing with an issue that is commonly avoided by people. The disabled community are often excluded in cinema and many problems such as this are ignored. This film gives a sympathetic portrayal of the difficulties for the character of his situation. He feels resentment for his brother at what happened to him. In turn, Masato has feelings of guilt at what happened to his brother. The film is shot on a low budget with a guerrilla filmmaking style, often shot through the windows of a store, or on limited locations. However, Yuki Kuwazuru shows a talent for directing that makes it an interesting watch. There is skilful shot selection, framing and cuts that are noteworthy. The plot is kept very minimal and the film is short at just over an hour. It does feel as though it is missing a third act. The film sets up the various character dynamics and establishes the relationship between the brothers perfectly, but the film ends abruptly with an unsatisfactory resolution to their story.

“(Not) Perfect Human” is a human drama that tackles issues of disability in society and brings to the fore an issue that is rarely discussed. The sexual drives of people who are unable to act on them is something that is explored in this film. The feelings of resentment, envy, and even hatred that people might feel at the unfairness of their situation. The film does not exaggerate, but it is very emotional to see Jun struggle with his disability. In the end the film closes with no real resolution for this issue, but that is fitting. If it delivers anything it is a greater understanding of an often marginalised group.

Suffering of Ninko (2016)

Ninko (Masato Tsujioka) is a trainee Buddhist monk with a problem: despite a religious proscription against carnal lust, he finds himself irresistible to women. As he walks through the town with his fellow monks he is accosted by women who are barely able to restrain their desire. Being dedicated to his chosen path, Ninko resists any and all temptation, but soon he begins to be visited by strange manifestations in his dreams. As he attempts to ward off the thoughts through recitation of sutras, the visions of lascivious women exposing themselves to him and luring him to unwanted thoughts become to much. He flees the temple and sets off on a pilgrimage to find some kind of solace. On his way he comes across a ronin (Hideta Iwahashi) and the two of them travel together to a remote mountain village. There they hear tell of a mysterious mountain woman (Miho Wakabayashi) who manages to entrap men with sexual desire before killing them. The samurai agrees to kill the woman, ridding the village of this fear, and sets out with Ninko to face this peculiar foe.

“Suffering of Ninko” is the debut feature of Norihiro Niwatsukino, who not only wrote and directed the story but was also responsible for the special effects and animated sequences. The story has a folkloric feel about it and this is played up with the use of narration and the interweaving of traditional-looking animation. The film has a great visual style and although the locations used are sparing it does a good job of recreating the period in costumes and sets. The cinematography by Takayuki Okazaki and Shunichiro Yamamoto is a joy to behold, reminiscent of classic period and samurai dramas with vivid colours and camera work emphasising the ambient beauty. The style of animation reflects Japanese wood-cuts or ancient calligraphy and adds to the film’s charm. Masato Tsujioka does a good job with the character of Ninko, a man who is struggling to balance his innate sexuality with his religious duties. The narration by Quoko Kudo is important in creating a tone for the film that suggests it should be read more as a moralistic fable than a true-life account. The main cast is rounded out with Hideta Iwahashi as Kanzo the ronin and Miho Wakabayashi as Yama-onna.

Although the premise of the film, a sexually irresistible man fighting off the advances of insatiable women, may sound like that of a raunchy sex comedy, in truth the film is actually far more thoughtful than this. “Suffering of Ninko” treads a fine line between the sublime and the base and plays on the apparent contradictions inherent in human nature. Ninko’s role as a priest is in constant conflict with his reality as a man and the innate sexual desires that comes with that. Sexual repression through religion has been a feature of many civilizations and here it is brought to the screen in a way that is not overly sombre, but similarly doesn’t take its subject lightly. The removal of masks by characters during his extended sexual dream suggests that Ninko sees through humanity’s seemingly respectable façade. This is further emphasised by his meeting of the woman in the forest, where she talks to him from behind a mask. Kanzo tells Ninko that he both desires sex and is repelled by it, in the same way that Kanzo desires violence but shies from it. This duality of nature is important. There is a shame attached to sex in modern society that is partly, though not entirely attributable to the control exercised by religious organizations. “Suffering of Ninko” features many scenes set outdoors and Ninko’s escape from the temple shows this return to nature narrative. He is a man struggling against instinctive desires in pursuit of something higher in the form of religious transcendence. The film is one that is worth watching as it presents a unique directorial vision that blends arthouse with low comedy, but has a genuine depth of theme and ideas.

Instant Swamp (2009)

In a frenetic opening monologue, Haname Jinchoge (Kumiko Aso) introduces us to her life and philosophies. She goes through her daily routine as a chore, enjoys a sludge of ten spoons of coffee in milk each morning, and lives with her mother (Keiko Matsuzaka), her father has left for a more wealthy woman. Haname loses her job at failing women’s magazine publication and her mother takes ill resulting in a coma. They manage to fish a letter out of a sunken post-box that tells Haname that her real father is not who she thought, but is instead a bohemian figure called Light Bulb (Morio Kazama), who is now running a bric-a-brac store. The eternally upbeat Haname sets out to meet him, hoping that her discovery of her mother’s former partner might return her to consciousness.

“Instant Swamp” has a bizarre and convoluted plot that is perfectly in keeping with its protagonist and her eccentric behaviour. The film is an off-beat comedy that relies heavily on slapstick humour and unusual scenarios. It often delights in subverting expectations with ridiculous reveals. Much of the dialogue is clearly designed more for laughs than realism and it plays like a series of sketches that happen to involve the same characters. Not all of the jokes work, but there are enough of them that this does not matter. In the same way, the plot moves along at such a pace that there is always something else to be invested in, albeit temporarily, like a wild treasure hunt that is constantly throwing up more hints to follow. The jokes are helped, even when the material is weak, by some great comedic performances. Kumiko Aso is very charismatic in the lead role and really sells every gag. Morio Kazama as Light Bulb gives a good performance as the humorous yet untrustworthy shop owner. The supporting actors, Eri Fuse as Haname’s co-worker Ichinose, and Ryo Kase as a punk electrician named Gas, are also excellent in their roles. The film is written and directed by Satoshi Miki, whose fertile imagination shows in every scene.

“Instant Swamp” is a peculiar film about the magic of everyday life. In an early scene, Haname’s mother tells her there is a kappa in the garden. Haname refuses to be drawn in, believing this to be a silly delusion. Similarly, when she is tasked with writing an article on ghosts for her magazine she is highly sceptical, despite her co-workers’ belief in the supernatural. However, by the end of the scene Haname has experienced her own transcendental moment of magic, finally converted to the idea that the world is a wide and wonderful place where anything can happen. The film is not attempting to suggest scepticism is wrong, but that most people spend their lives in narrow channels and often miss out on the opportunities that may be surrounding them for experiencing “magic”. This idea is also emphasised in the use of antiques dealing as a central plot point. Haname’s meeting with Light Bulb proves to be important as she learns that the value of an object is not necessarily in its price, but in its emotional weight. She learns to value things based not solely on their use. Again, this is shown in her own attachment to a bent nail, the importance of which is lost on almost everyone she shows it to. The theme of luck plays throughout the film in parallel with this idea. Haname believes that throwing away a lucky black cat statue in her youth has led to her streak of misfortune. However, when she is tricked into buying something that is seemingly useless at the end of the film, she has grown enough to appreciate the potential in even the lowliest of things. Life, she realises, is not based on luck, but instead on making the most of what you have and in seeing opportunity in every new day.