Shape of Red (2020) by Yukiko Mishima

A woman stuck in a rut sees the possibility of a new life when she reconnects with an old boyfriend. Toko (Kaho) is living a simple yet unexciting life with her husband Shin (Shotaro Mamiya) and their young daughter Midori. Having given up on her career as an architect to become a wife and mother, she is now confined to housework, looking after her daughter and tending to her husband’s needs. Her mother-in-law’s presence is a constant reminder of her prescribed role in the household. A chance encounter with an old partner Kurata (Satoshi Tsumabuki) gives Toko a glimpse of a life she could have had with this man. They begin a passionate affair, awakening in Toko a hidden desire for freedom and self-fulfilment. Kurata invites her for a job interview at the architectural firm he is working for. Toko’s liberation from the role of mother and wife begins to see her question her past decisions and long for something more.

“Shape of Red”, based on the novel “Red” by Rio Shimamoto, is a film that tackles the oftentimes subtle ways in which women are held back from achieving their potential and expressing their own wills. Early in the film we see Toko collecting her daughter from nursery, performing chores at home and later a rather mundane sexual exchange with her partner Shin, in which it is clear her role is to provide pleasure for him despite receiving little in return. When she later meets Kurata and begins work at the company we see her gaining in confidence and troubled over what has become of her life. The tragic twists later in the film are devastating, but no more so than the disturbingly familiar conversations throughout that undermine Toko’s independence and make clear that she is there to support her child and husband rather than follow her own dreams. When Toko applies for a job and an eyebrow is raised over the blank space on her CV; or when her husband chastises her for not fulfilling what he sees as her duties; or the lies she is forced to tell her in-laws. All of these moments offer a deft character study of a woman who is completely trapped in the banal suburban housewife role, which is only a part of what she is as a woman.

The cinematography in the film helps bring us along on Toko’s journey of self-discovery, often keeping close to her or emphasising her perspective. The scenes inside the car, with Toko and Kurata cocooned together, make their emotional connection as tangible as their isolation from the world. The use of snow and rain to bring home the warmth of their connection as opposed to the cold outside is also a creative way to portray their relationship. The use of colour and framing also shows a flair for visual storytelling, often wordlessly expressing exactly what is going on. This is helped by an incredible central performance from Kaho as Toko, who encapsulates perfectly the anxieties and feeling of constriction and helplessness of the character. The difficulty of her choice, between Shin and Kurata, is writ large in her actions and we can feel the turmoil that she is in having to make such a decision. The performances of Satoshi Tsumabuki as Kurata, Shotaro Mamiya as Shin, and Tasuku Emoto as Kodaka, all offer excellent characterisations of men who are far from the typical villain, but nevertheless take on the role of antagonist in Toko’s quest for freedom. They offer a look at men from the female perspective, either too demanding or oppressive in the case of Shin, or too frivolous in the case of Kodaka.

The film deals with the difficulties of navigating life as a woman. Having to choose between family and career; constantly feeling belittled by men around you; and the pressure of relationships and raising children. “Shape of Red” is a film about a woman who has lost her way and is trying to discover what it is she wants from life. This is complicated by her marriage and daughter, who are tying her to her past decisions. When Toko’s mother tells her that she believes Toko has never really loved any man, it offers an interesting insight into the themes of the film. Far from being a saviour, Kurata merely offers a means of escape from her humdrum life. To use a metaphor from the film, Kurata is only showing her a window through which she can see her future. One without her overbearing husband and in which she is free. The construction of this dream house in the film, which Toko adjusts to have a large picture window, shows the construction in physical form of her ideal life, and the expanding potential of her possible futures. “Shape of Red” is a moving film with incredible performances and superb visual storytelling. A dissatisfied wife embarking on an affair is not uncommon in romantic dramas, but this film’s power is in its universality and its rallying call for women to embrace their own desires, however hard it might seem.

Smoking (2018)

An unlikely group of assassins work together to give various petty gangsters their come-uppance in this blackly comic crime series. Sabe (Ryo Ishibashi), Hifumin (Kaito Yoshimura), Goro (Tomomi Maruyama) and Haccho (Nobuaki Kaneko) are four homeless individuals who provide a service to those with the money to pay; namely killing gangsters and other ne’er-do-wells. Their gimmick is that Sabe, who has some medical training, flays the tattoos off their victims backs, delivering them as grisly proof that they have eliminated their target. As the series progresses we learn that Sabe was formerly employed by a shady organization known as The Cleaner, who also specialised in underworld killings. The other three members of his team, the mute teen Hirofumin, intelligent and kind; the heavyweight prize-fighter Goro, whose terrifying proportions strike fear in their victims; and the sharply dressed Haccho, each have their own tragic backstory that brought them together one by one to form this team known as “Smoking”.

The story is based on a manga by Iwaki Hiroshi and its origins show in the colourful characters and outrageous set-ups for each episode. The four leads are almost heroic archetypes, a sort of super team all bringing their unique skills to the mix. The series is twelve episodes, each under a half an hour, in which they are usually presented with a new job to undertake. As the series progresses we learn more about each character, and the over-arching story of The Cleaner and Sabe’s past bring some unity to the story as they are all drawn into a violent showdown with this gang. There is plenty to enjoy in “Smoking” if you don’t take things too seriously. The set-ups are ridiculous, taking real world criminal activity and exaggerating it into something more fantastical. Examples of this include a gang that has an entire hospital full of elderly people who they have hooked on drugs; or an underground martial arts betting ring, where the fighters are also pumped full of narcotics before beating each other to death. The idea of peeling off the tattoos of each victim is a unique touch, showing that our protagonists are just as brutal as the irredeemable gangsters they take down. The four leads are perfect in their roles. Ryo Ishibashi (Suicide Club, Audition) lends an air of credibility to the outlandish story. Kaito Yoshimura (Love and Other Cults) does a good job as the largely silent and sympathetic Hifumin. Tomomi Maruyama and Nobuaki Kaneko are no stranger to television dramas and do a great job with the roles of Haccho and Goro, offering much of the comedy in their bickering and both excelling when their stories take a dark and tragic turn.

“Smoking” occasionally suffers from certain limitations of television drama and budget constraints. The pacing is uneven at times; perhaps unsurprising since each episode has to be wrapped up in such a short time. This could perhaps have been helped by running some of the stories over multiple episodes. It certainly helps build tension later in the series when we begin to get recurring characters and the semblance of an over-arching plot. Often there will be little discussion of what their plan is, which makes things seem matter-of-course and again does little to provide a sense of threat. Often the characters will put themselves in dangerous situations that draws their intelligence into question. These are clearly televisual shortcuts to ramp up a sense of danger, or bring all the required characters together in a particular place, but again it undermines any real sense of threat. This is not always the case and there are episodes that work very well in the short episodic format, such as the MMA betting ring episode. The direction and look of the show can also be hit and miss, with stylish shots and moments reminiscent of heroic crime dramas followed by very mundane scenes of the characters in their makeshift home, or out on the streets. It excels when it strives for a manga aesthetic and this is definitely something that could have been more prominent. The series is clearly set in a hyper-stylised version of reality, so trips itself up in going for a more believable look at times.

Crime thrillers usually follow either the cops or the criminals, whereas “Smoking” follows a group who are somewhere on the border between good and evil. On the surface their actions are horrific, killing and skinning their victims, but they are doing it for the greater good by ridding the city of violent gangsters. As Sabe flays his victims he usually delivers a short speech about peeling away their skin to reveal the monster within. It is a show that asks us to question our understanding of crime and society. The tattoos that mark these individuals are a sign of their criminality, but their sins cannot be so easily stripped away as their flesh. As things progress our natural sympathy with the protagonists is strengthened as we learn about what brought them together, each having had dealings with some criminal element. The central premise, of a group who are paid to kill gangsters, suggests an interesting irony in how we deal with crime in society. By doing this work, dealing out this punishment, that may be deemed good or even necessary, they are lowering themselves into the mud along with their victims, becoming the very monsters they are trying to eliminate. “Smoking” is well worth a watch for fans of crime dramas, with an excellent cast and a story that is fast-paced and packed with melodrama.

Kagemusha (1980) by Akira Kurosawa

A thrilling samurai epic about loyalty and lordship from a master of the historical drama. A kagemusha, or ‘shadow warrior’, is a body double used to avoid the lord being put in danger, or to trick the enemy. The film begins with prominent warlord Shingen Takeda’s brother Nobukado (Tsutomu Yamazaki) having found a perfect double of the lord, a former thief who he saved from hanging. Although he is nothing like the fearsome lord in manner, he is the spitting image of him (Tatsuya Nakadai plays both Shingen Takeda and his new kagemusha). At this time three mighty leaders are vying for control of the county: Ieyasu Tokugawa (Masayuki Yui) and Nobunaga Oda (Daisuke Ryu), who have formed an alliance are in bitter conflict with the third, Shingen Takeda. Takeda is close to victory, when he is shot and wounded by a sniper. Following his death, the kagemusha must step in to take his place, as per the lord’s wishes, for three years. This presents a problem for Takeda’s supporters as this doppelganger risks exposing himself as an imposter. Meanwhile, Tokugawa and Oda move forward with their campaign to unify Japan; and Takeda’s son Katsuyori (Kenichi Hagiwara) attempts to win power in his own right.

“Kagemusha” is set during the warring states period, a pivotal moment of Japanese history. It takes for its basis one of the possible stories about Takeda’s death and spins a fantastical tale of deception and feudal conflict culminating in the Battle of Nagashino. The film has a theatrical feel to it, beginning from the opening scene in which we have a long dialogue between Nobukado, Takeda and their new kagemusha. Simply staged with a fixed camera it relies on the excellent performances and framing to tell the story. Throughout the film this carefully considered tone is maintained. Kurosawa is known to have painted out his own storyboards and it shows in the composition of each shot. Background details take on great significance, whether the suit of armour that hangs in the background as Tokugawa sits in his hall, or the incredible landscapes of crashing waves at the shore. Each detail is carefully calculated to enhance the drama, drawing out the power of the surrounding environment to bolster the unfolding drama. Kurosawa also knows how to use extras to maximum effect, from scores of corpses showing the horror of battle, to the triumphant marching of spearmen and cavalry. The use of colour is also notable with scenes lent vitality through the reds, greens and blues of armour and banners.

Kurosawa uses long takes and scenes to excellent effect in “Kagemusha”, giving the actors space to express themselves and ideas and emotions time to take on real significance. One example of this is in the scene where the sniper explains how he shot Takeda. Rather than a quick explanation, we are given an extended sequence where he runs step by step through his actions. It is in Kurosawa’s measured pacing that scenes such as this are leant dramatic weight. In the scenes with Takeda’s grandson and mistresses the unbearable tension that he may be exposed is drawn out, creating a palpable sense of threat.

The soundscape also feels inspired by theatre, with the use of traditional instruments played for reactions or mood setting. As the film progresses we get a more traditional epic score that begins to play over the battle scenes. Equally noteworthy however is the film’s use of silence in many scenes, allowing the acting to speak for itself. Again an example of Kurosawa’s still, contemplative style that allows the audience to really empathise fully with  the trials and tribulations of the kagemusha.

While much of the film is a tragic lament on the loss of nobility and the horror of war, it also features plenty of humour to lighten the tone, such as hapless servants walking over an area they have just brushed, the kagemusha discovering Takeda’s body, or crude jokes about how the kagemusha should deal with Takeda’s mistresses in the same way he does the horse (by claiming he is too ill to ride that day). Kurosawa’s belief in his actors is justified, with Tatsuya Nakadai delivering an incredible performance as Takeda and the kagemusha. We watch him transform from a lowly thief to the embodiment of honour and calm surety.

The film is at once an historical epic, with the clashing of great martial forces for the future of Japan, and at the same time a highly personal tale of one man’s journey to discover a sense of honour. One of the bloodiest periods of Japanese history, the warring clans knew that whoever triumphed would control the fate of the country. The opening and closing of the film show the great sacrifices that were made to achieve what they believed was a unifying mission, with hundreds upon thousands killed. The film offers little praise or condemnation of the actions of Tokugawa, Oda and Takeda, giving a stoic appraisal of their actions. All are shown to be great leaders and there is little indication that any one of them is better or worse than the others. In the story of the kagemusha we are given an account of a man who is forced to become someone better than he is. When the film begins he is disloyal, avaricious and immature; by contrast Takeda is shown to be a thoughtful and fearsome warrior. The film might be read as a commentary on how individual will can be forced into subservience to a lord or master, necessitating complete destruction of the ego in service of a higher power. However, the film also suggests that Takeda is truly great and that this transformation of the lowly thief into a lord is something of an honour. One interesting aspect of the film is the kagemusha’s relationship with Takeda’s grandson, who immediately marks him out as an imposter. He states that he is no longer afraid of him, and later their relationship becomes one of genuine warmth. This indicates a more nuanced view of the difference between Takeda and kagemusha, showing what the first had to sacrifice in order to become a fierce warlord. An incredible film that speaks to what it means to be a leader and giving an insight into this bloody period of history.

Eriko, Pretended (2016) by Akiyo Fujimura

Losing someone is never easy and this film looks at how people deal with grief. Eriko Yoshioka (Haruka Kubo) is a struggling actor, her main claim to fame being a brief appearance as a background dancer in a beer commercial. She lives with her flatmate who has dreams of being a famous stand-up double act comedian. When her sister dies, she heads back to her hometown for the funeral. Her sister Yukiko has left behind a son, Kazuma (Atsuya Okada), whose father is unknown to the family. After the ceremony, Eriko agrees to stay for a while to look after Kazuma while they decide what will happen to him. Eriko is then contacted by a Hanae (Miki Nitori), Yukiko’s old boss, who recruits Eriko as a “mourner for hire”; their job being to attend funerals and grieve, a process which is intended to help the soul pass to the afterlife.

“Eriko, Pretended” is an interesting look at how people behave following a death. The simple story allows time to contemplate the themes as Eriko deals with her sister’s passing. Haruka Kubo gives an understated performance in the lead role, displaying a complex and believable response to her sister’s passing. Miki Nitori is good as Hanae, a strong businesswoman, but also someone who has absolute belief in the value of her profession. Although short the film does feel stretched at times, not helped by the depressing nature of the story. It does not establish much attachment to the secondary characters, even Kazuma and Eriko’s relationship feels a little shallow. Much of the film is workmanlike, in direction and music, lacking the visual metaphor, use of colour and lighting that might have enlivened and enhanced the narrative. Towards the end of the film there is a scene of the empty rooms of the house that is effortlessly impactful, but these moments are too infrequent, with the majority of the film lacking that sense of a deeper meaning.

The concept of performative grief is one that can be found throughout history, with wailing and pulling of hair, the wearing of black, and other outward displays of loss and sadness common across many cultures. Early in the film we see Eriko at an audition in which she is asked to show emotion for a character who has died. Unable to realistically express sadness she is passed over for the role. When she later takes up the job of a hired mourner, she is at first confused by the job and later annoyed at another hired group of mourners whose exaggerated wailing borders on parody of the grieving process. Eriko’s seeming inability to mourn appropriately, or vocally, enough is offset by her caring for her orphaned nephew. In showing the falseness of what they are doing as hired mourners, it helps to highlight the real sense of loss that she is feeling and the difficulty in coming to terms with the death of a family member. Crying is a physical response intended to release pent-up emotions and therefore it is part of the healing process for those left behind. Characters discuss the role mourning has in helping the spirits of the dead reach the other side. The notion of grieving breaking some metaphysical barrier to the afterlife can perhaps be better understood as the living finally ‘letting go’ of their loved ones and allowing their soul to travel on ahead as a happy memory, rather than dwelling on their death. “Eriko, Pretended” has an interesting story, dissecting the often peculiar customs surrounding death, but often fails to develop an emotional connection to its characters.

Ainu Mosir (2020) by Takeshi Fukunaga

Kanto (Kanto Shimokura) is a young boy living in the small town of Akan in Hokkaido. He wants to escape from his rural hometown and Ainu heritage, telling his mother that he feels he is constantly reminded of his culture in their songs, festivals and traditions that are an integral part of life in their community. Having lost his father, Kanto’s confusion about whether to embrace or shun his heritage, takes on a greater personal significance for him; the absence of a paternal role model leaves him feeling cast adrift and having to his own path in life. Kanto is not without help on this journey of self-discovert. His mother (Emi Shimokura), who runs an Ainu craft store, is caring, though hurt at her son’s seeming disinterest in his culture. He also has a substitute father-figure in the shape of Debo (Debo Akibe), an Ainu elder, who attempts to teach him their traditions. Debo fully embraces their heritage, wearing his culture as a badge of honour and believing in the absolute necessity of preserving their traditions and values. Along with others, he is preparing for a cultural festival that has not been performed for many decades, in which they must raise a bear cub before killing it. The spirit of the god inside the bear will then return to the heavens carrying word of their good deeds and other gods will come to inhabit the animals of their lands.

Born in Hokkaido, writer-director Takeshi Fukunaga shows great respect for the native Ainu. He worked with the local community in creating the script, and cast Ainu locals. The film documents various aspects of Ainu culture, music, dress, festivals, traditions and beliefs. We also see the friction, and subtle discrimination, between the Japanese and the Ainu; with Kanto’s mother being praised by oblivious tourists on her excellent Japanese. As well as insights into the Ainu culture, the film also shows the difficulty faced in attempting to hold on to these traditions. The Ainu are taking classes to learn the Ainu language, and must read from scripts when performing their rituals. It is a constant struggle to keep these cultures alive as languages and traditions are forgotten or eradicated. At heart “Ainu Mosir” is a coming-of-age story with Kanto facing the added pressure from those around him to take on the role of an ‘Ainu’ individual. Kanto himself is a typical teen, playing in a rock band and watching Hollywood films. He feels pigeonholed as an ‘Ainu’, railroaded into becoming what is expected of him, where he wants a future of wider possibilities. He sees his culture as restrictive; while Debo sees it as a source of pride, his deep roots giving him confidence and a sense of identity. Casting Ainu actors in the main roles helps lend an authenticity to the film and genuine emotion to the performances. The cinematography by Sean Price Williams, with stunning vistas of rural Hokkaido and the passing of the seasons, provides the perfect background for this story of people shaped by their environment.

‘Ainu Mosir’ is a significant film for what it says about the value of culture and the difficulties experienced by native peoples who feel their past is being erased. However, it wears this lightly and never lectures the audience on matters such as colonialism, xenophobia, racism, and the struggle for the rights of indigenous groups. Rather these issues are refracted through the personal story of Kanto and his own difficulties coming to terms with his heritage and the loss of his father. While the film focusses on a specific culture, its message is universal. A worthwhile film for its moving portrayal of a young teen at a crossroads in life, who must learn what is important to him, while navigating the turbulent waters of family, culture and heritage.