Red Snow (2019) by Sayaka Kai

Shogo Kodachi (Arata Iura) is a reporter who travels to a remote town to investigate the circumstances of a disappearance of a young boy over thirty years ago. Although the police believe they know what happened to the boy, the woman who was arrested never admitted to his kidnapping and murder. The reporter meets with Kazuki (Masatoshi Nagase), the brother of the murdered child, whose memories of his brother’s disappearance seem to be partial and distorted. Shogo also meets with Sayuri (Nahana), the daughter of the woman accused of the kidnap and murder thirty years before.

“Red Snow” is a unique crime drama, less concerned with the details of the case than the subsequent impact such an event has on the relations of the victims and the murderer. The crime is in fact solved early on, it is clear that the boy was kidnapped and killed, but many people either refuse to admit what happened or have misremembered details about the case and their experiences. The setting, with falling snow and an iron grey sea, create a cold atmosphere that is reflected in the stony silence of those the reporter interviews. The cinematography by Futa Takagi gives the world a gritty, noir feel, with the chill of the wind and the darkening skies creating an oppressive atmosphere in which the drama unfolds. The soundtrack of natural sounds and breathy woodwind is likewise harsh and disturbing. This is the first film from writer/ director Sayaka Kai but it is an impressive debut and shows a prodigious talent for storytelling. The small cast make for a taut thriller that keeps you guessing at the exact details of the case. Many of the characters operated in a grey area of morality, their history and motives obscured, but their carefully constructed characters remain fascinating whether relatable or repulsive.

The film takes an unusual form for a crime drama, with the crime already solved before the film begins. The incredible central performances mean we are brought into the world and psychology of those who survived the horrific events of thirty years before. It is a story about the difficulty of memory and how people can supress traumatic moments from their past. Both Kazuki and Nahana are victims in their own ways and the film shows how people and society are often all to quick to forget things they would rather not remember.

Another World (2019) by Junji Sakamoto

A trio of high-school friends are reunited when Eisuke (Hiroki Hasegawa), who has been posted with the Self Defence Forces, returns to their small home town. Koh (Goro Inagaki) is trying to make a living making charcoal, carrying on his father’s business, ignorant of his sons struggles with bullying, while Mitsuhiko (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) works with his own father at a second-hand car business.

Written and directed by Junji Sakamoto, “Another World” is an intimate portrait of a trio of men who have lost their way. An excellent central cast create a believable friendship between the three men who have drifted apart since their high-school days and are struggling to find purpose in their lives. There are also solid performances from all of the supporting cast, particularly Chizuru Ikewaki as Koh’s wife Hatsuno and Rairu Sugita as his son, Akira. The film’s story, for what it is, is a little meandering, largely concerned with showing how the characters relate to each other. There are a number of good scenes, between Koh and his son for example, or the three friends drinking together by the beach for old time’s sake. It shows what life is like in a small town and the difficulties of living there. Two of the friends have never moved away and seem to be trapped, one day much like the next and nothing to do but work and drink. As one of them says, he has never really taken any decisions for himself, taking on his father’s business and marrying someone after they became pregnant.

“Another World” is about the importance of friendship, while at the same time showing the need to find your own way in the world. The three characters are referred to as a triangle, each one supporting the other. The three are isolated in their own worlds, and only when they are together do we see the spark of something more in their lives. Without other people to support you, life can be difficult and meaningless. In the character of Koh, we see a man who is trapped by obligation, carrying on his father’s business partly out of spite at the way he was treated as a child. Eisuke seems to be suffering from PTSD following his experiences in the army, something his friends are unaware of, while Mitsuhiko (the most upbeat) is also dealing with his alcoholic father and running the family business. The film is a difficult watch, slow paced at times, but with some standout moments and performances it will appeal to fans of solid character-driven dramas.

My Father, the Bride (2019) by Momoko Fukuda

Toka (Honoka Matsumoto) travels home for the anniversary of her mother’s death. She is shocked to see her father Seiji (Itsuji Itao) in her mother’s dress, and more shocked to discover he plans to remarry with a man named Kazuo (Kenta Hamano) who he is living with. Kazuo also has a teenage daughter, Dari (Serena Motola) whose friend Taki (Yugo Mikawa) is dealing with his own issues of identity. Toka slowly grows to an understanding of her father and acceptance of his decision.

Written and directed by Momoko Fukuda, “My Father, the Bride” is a film about family relationships, particularly that between Toka and her father. The film is also about gender and sexuality, although it is chaste in its depiction of the relationship between Seiji and Kazuo. Honoka Matsumoto’s performance as Toka is great, showing her discomfort at what she discovers when she returns home and her growing acceptance of her father. The story of Daria and Taki also offers a great subplot, reflecting the same struggles for a younger generation, and Serena Motola and Yugo Mikawa offer some of the most emotionally charged moments and an excellent chemistry as firm high-school friends. Yugo Mikawa’s performance is one of the highlights of the film. The music, light jazz horn and piano and breathy flutes, and the cinematography of their beautiful island home all goes towards creating a comfortable feel. There is little real conflict or tension in the film, as with many stories on the subject of sexuality in Japan it prefers a softly-softly approach to its theme. The film uses the family dinner table as a main stage (the Japanese title “Delicious Family” gives an indication of the importance of food in the story). We see characters variously arranged around the table in relation to their situations, with Toka often sat across from her father, but later in the film sitting side by side as they make food together.

The film has a clear message about accepting gender differences. The relationship between Seiji and Kazuo seems a little underdeveloped. Perhaps this is to be expected as it is Toka’s story and told from her perspective. The audiences lack of knowledge about their relationship is perhaps intended to mirror that of our protagonist who has arrived in medias res. In contrast Taki’s journey is a powerful and necessary depiction of the struggles of young people coming to terms with their sexuality. The film is full of heart with some great comedic moments from Honoka Matsumoto and a standout performance by Yugo Mikawa. It rarely subverts expectations on a narrative level, but its charm shines through and it is an enjoyable family drama.

Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san (2019) by Daisuke Ono

Lala Suzuki (Honoka Matsumoto) lives in rural Gunma with her mother and younger brother. Her main creative outlet is her YouTube channel, where she creates a bizarre character that she seems to carry on into her everyday life, including wearing an eyepatch and wandering around with a large mallet. When she receives a call to say that a television company wants to come and film her she sees her big chance, but her hopes are dashed when the company executives change their mind after seeing her videos and decide not to run the show. Lala’s frustrated, angsty behavior is explained when we discover that her twin sister, Lili, is a successful personality working in Tokyo, having succeeded at an interview which Lala failed.

Written and directed by Daisuke Ono, the film is ostensibly a comedy, but often feels more like an emotional drama as we watch Lala slowly succumbing to feelings of rage and resentment towards her sister. On first viewing the film can seem lacking in jokes, with a few sparse laughs and long stretches where little to nothing is happening. Lala seems disaffected and prone to aggressive outbursts. Her ‘comedic’ videos are largely unfunny, with her bizarre sense of humour almost impenetrable to anyone but herself. It becomes apparent only later in the film that this is not a comedy in the conventional sense, that we are actually not meant to laugh at Lala, but to sympathise with and perhaps even pity this character. She is a failure on her own terms, but unable to see why she is not famous or accept any other course than the stardom she feels she deserves. She feels ill-treated by the world. The film can be a difficult watch at times, and takes reflection to see the funny side of what is happening. The deadpan humour and drawn out jokes can seem impenetrable, but there are some fantastic lines and moments that have the feel of a cult classic in the making. Honoka Matsumoto gives a fantastic performance in twin roles as the disaffected Lala and the successful sister Lili, creating a believable tension between the two, even in scenes where she plays opposite herself. She is supported by a small cast including Mayuko Nishiyama and Taketo Tanaka as her long suffering mother and brother.

“Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san” is an offbeat comedy about someone who is struggling to succeed in a world that is obsessed with fame. The use of twins is a clever way to show that for every successful actor there are many more who will never be recognized and who will spend their lives as complete unknowns. This accounts for the film’s peculiar tone in that it is following the character who did not make it, who is not succeeding in fulfilling their goals, and who feels isolated, depressed and frustrated about her lack of recognition. There is a moment in the film when Lili is on television with a fake brother and mother played by actors (adding insult to injury, Lala is not portrayed at all in the family unit), and given a fictitious backstory. It shows the unreality of television. As Lala tells her student, everyone involved in the media is a liar. While the humour may be hit and miss, the performances are strong and by the end of the film you begin to sympathise with Lala’s situation.

Gate of Flesh (1965) by Seijun Suzuki

Post-war Japan is a harsh place, the dog-eat-dog mentality engendered by the war mixed with the disappointment of defeat. The citizens live in a situation of dire poverty, surviving on rations and basic supplies, watched over by the keen eyed Military Police and the prowling US occupiers. A young woman, Maya (Yumiko Nogawa), is caught stealing food to survive. She is taken to Sen (Satoko Kasai), the strong-willed leader of a group of prostitutes, as a way out of her situation. This band of women have set up their own business in the crumbling ruins of an abandoned building. They wear their profession as a badge of honour, working for themselves, driving other women from their territory, and having strict rules about who they will sleep with. Their number one rule is that they must never sleep with a man without payment. However, when ex-soldier Shintaro Ibuki (Joe Shishido) turns up looking for refuge after stabbing a GI, he threatens to destroy their carefully managed business.

Director Seijun Suzuki and cinematographer Shigeyoshi Mine take us right to the heart of the action of post-war Japan, with the streets bustling with people from all walks of life trying to survive. In contrast to the greys and browns of their surroundings, the central cast of women are always dressed in the same single bright colours, that helps identify them and sets them apart from everyone else. The actresses all do a fantastic job with their characters, giving them a sense of individuality. Yumiko Nogawa’s defiant leader, Sen, Tomiko Ishii’s upbeat Roku, Kayo Matsuo’s wily Mino, Yumiko Nogawa’s fragile yet determined Maya, are a charismatic quartet whose wild, funny, unpredictable, even cruel antics, are always a pleasure to watch. Joe Shishido gives a strong performance as Ibuki, who is putting a brave face on his inner turmoil. Misako Tominaga is also excellent as Machiko, a member of the group who gives in to her feelings and is cast out. All the characters appear fiercely independent but each harbours their own personal tragedy, whether the loss of a husband or a brother in the war. One of the strengths of the film is that it does not create heroes. Every character is flawed, often being cruel, malicious, or greedy, but it is clear that they are products of their environment. The score by Naozumi Yamamoto features a plaintive melody with repeated snatches of song that are often hummed or whistled by characters. There are also several songs that are performed by the cast at various points. The use of a pounding drum at moments of crisis for Maya is powerful. It breaks up the flow of action in a way that suddenly brings home to the audience the impact of everything on her. Suzuki also uses cross-fading imagery to good effect, especially in the moments when we see the ghosts of the past appearing before characters in a moment that moves, like much of the film, from joyous to morose.

“Gate of Flesh” begins with titles shown over drawings of naked corpses. This understanding of the fragility of life seems to haunt both the characters and the audience as the drama unfolds. Following any war or great loss of life, the old certainties disappear. To see a corpse makes us wonder what the point of living is in the first place, given the inevitable conclusion. This is a question posed by one character in the film. This nihilism also helps to explain the mindset of the women, who see their bodies as no more than flesh, a commodity to be sold and for them to profit from. They base their self-worth entirely in terms of business transactions, which in turns strips them of their inner selves, leading them to cruelty. At first they may seem heartless, but it becomes clear that they are simply keeping their emotions buried in order to adapt to a world that seems to have abandoned morality and compassion. In one powerful moment, Maya seduces a priest who had tried to help her, and this is a confirmation that human beings may aspire to higher things but their nature will always draw them back to their primitive urges. It is interesting to consider the male-female dynamics in the film, with the group of women being a strong group who are disrupted by the appearance of a man. Their reactions to him seem over-the-top, even childish, which may be a release of their pent-up emotions in reaction to the cold personas they have assumed. The colour-coded dresses they wear may also give an insight into each of their true personalities, or perhaps represent how they wish to be seen. They are holding on to a brightness and hope that is disappearing from the world around them. “Gate of Flesh” is a masterclass in directing with excellent performances and a story that touches on the very nature of humanity.