Hiroshima (1953) by Hideo Sekigawa

The atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a tragic landmark in world history, a painful reminder of humanity’s capacity for violence and the devastating power of technology. The destruction of the city, the incredible death toll, and the subsequent suffering led to a long period of contemplation on the morality of this attack. Hideo Sekigawa’s film begins with a class of students in 1953, some of whom are suffering the consequences of the bomb through leukemia (known as the atomic sickness). In a powerful monologue one of the students rails against the short memories of the people, suggesting that not only the world is quickly forgetting the horror of what happened, but even citizens of Hiroshima itself. We are then taken back to a period shortly before August 6th 1945, introduced to several people living in the shadow of war, but entirely oblivious to the coming atrocity. The film depicts the day of the bombing and what followed in heartbreaking detail, showing the loss and agony of the victims as they struggle to come to terms with the aftermath of this terrifying new weapon.

Yasutaro Yagi’s screenplay is based on real life accounts from the time, which were collected by Dr. Arata Osada in his 1951 book “Children of the Bomb”. Filmed in 1953, the memory of Hiroshima would still have been fresh in many people’s minds and its shockingly explicit depiction of things such as burn victims, mental anguish, the death of children, and other horrors, shows a determination to confront head-on this tragedy that left a deep scar on the Japanese psyche. The film does not have a singular narrative, instead showing various vignettes of different people and events that symbolise the period. Whether it is a class of children trapped beneath the rubble; a soldier who clings desperately to his sense of duty; or the wailing of infants for their mothers in makeshift refuges, the film takes us to the human heart of what this attack meant to those affected by it. “Hiroshima” righthly maintains a firm focus on the victims, rather than complicate it with unnecessary historical detail or attempt to retrospectively contextualise the attack, with only a brief mention of events such as Pearl Harbour and the Bataan Death March. The film’s recreation of the devastated city, rubble strewn streets, unquenchable fires burning, smoke billowing, is shocking to witness, giving a limited yet impactful sense of the reality. There are occasional clips taken from contemporary documentary footage, showing doctors at work on victims, or destroyed streets, that help remind the viewer that however extreme the portrait seems, if anything it does not capture the true horror of what occurred. The main cast comprises several stars of the period, Yumeji Tsukioka (who had previously starred in “The Bells of Nagasaki”, another film about survivors of the second atomic bomb dropped on Japan), Eiji Okada, Yoshi Kato, and Isuzu Yamada, alongside an incredible supporting cast which includes many young actors. The performances capture the excruciating physical pain of the victims alongside the shock and sheer terror of what they witnessed and experienced. The sequences of people hobbling and crawling, each step an agony, are particularly moving. The use of large numbers of extras helps gives a sense of the scale of the tragedy, with entire neighbourhoods devastated by the blast. The score by Akira Ifukube is a thrilling orchestral composition that highlights the enormity of what befell at Hiroshima, a devastating eulogy to those who were lost.

“Hiroshima” is an attempt to document and recreate the pain of this event. One of the most powerful scenes comes towards the end when we see the ghosts of those who were killed rise up in silent groups, a powerful memorial to the victims of the bombing. Throughout the film there is a focus on children too, understandably as the script was based on the testimony of young witnesses in Dr. Osada’s book. The film begins with a class full of young people and children feature throughout. Many of these children had their future stolen from them on that day, either through the illnesses they developed, or through the mental strain of dealing with the aftermath. We later see a roving band of orphans begging for food and scavenging for scrap metal to sell, their lives overturned in an instant. The film presents a stark depiction of the events, without dramatizing or exaggerating, simply allowing us to experience a part of what happened and the aftermath. A film that pricks the conscience, with a forceful message that such things should never be forgotten nor repeated.

The Naked Director Series 2 (2021)

Toru Muranishi (Takayuki Yamada) is on top of the world, with Sapphire Productions making money hand over fist, his staff and stars, including Rugby (Takenori Goto), Junko (Sairi Ito), Naoko (Ami Tomite), and manager Kawada (Tetsuji Tamayama), are all happy with how things are going. But Muranishi is dreaming bigger; after finding out about the new technology of satellite television he dreams of having his videos distributed to every home, seeing a vision of porn ‘raining down from the sky’. Meanwhile, Detective Takei (Lily Franky) is still playing both sides of the yakuza while unfortunate Toshi (Shinnosuke Mitsushima) acts as a lackey under boss Furuya (Jun Kunimura). Kaoru Kuroki (Misato Morita) is coming to terms with her fame as Japan’s premier adult actress and the company is taking on a slew of new talent.

“The Naked Director Series 2” has the same energy and outrageous comedy moments as the first series, but also delves more into the darker side of the industry. We see Muranishi’s arrogant, overbearing persona both in a positive and negative light as it wins him contracts, but alienates those around him. Most poignant are the stories of Kaoru Kuroki, and to a lesser extent Naoko, who are figuring out what it means to be a porn actress and whether they can ever leave the industry. New characters include Yuri Tsunematsu’s Miyuki, whose wide-eyed innocence hides a determination to succeed, but also finds that being a porn actress may not be as glamourous as it seems. The large and impressive ensemble cast, most returning from the first series, fully embody their characters, their quirks and personalities shining through even when they are only briefly on screen. While the series again mostly sticks with Muranishi’s story, there are plenty of moments for the rest of the cast to shine.

Series 2 is directed by Masaharu Take, lead director on the first series, and Kotaro Goto.  The show is stylish from start to finish with the camera becoming a part of the action and constant creativity on display. The series also features a couple of fantasy sequences which add a little comedy to things, with Muranishi floating in space to the strains of The Carpenter’s “Calling Occupants of Interplanetary Craft”. The soundtrack throughout the series features some great tracks, often used ironically. The score is not always limited to songs of the 1990’s, but the songs are generally well-selected and give the series a youthful energy. The recreation of the time period through costumes and set-design is impressive, recreating the 1990’s with as much gusto as series one did the 1980’s, a nostalgic look back at a lost era of fashion.

Much of the series is about regret and making mistakes. Gone is the naivety of their early careers; the characters now fully enmeshed in the ‘business’ side of the porn industry. This sense of being jaded is highlighted perfectly by having the pornography often playing as background noise. Things which are there to excite the general public are mere wallpaper to the protagonists. As money worries, relationship issues, business deals, and more consume Muranishi and the other characters, the shimmer of the glamourous image of their business is peeled away to reveal a world as soul-crushing and difficult as any other. An incredible second act to the first series, this time around revealing many of the failings of the characters and the difficulties they go through to maintain their sense of self.

Mio on the Shore (2019) by Ryutaro Nakagawa

Mio (Honoka Matsumoto) lives in a picturesque rural village in Nagano with her grandmother who runs a bathhouse. When her grandmother becomes sick, Mio moves to Tokyo to live with Kyosuke (Ken Mitsuishi), an old friend of her mothers. After failing to find work, Mio begins to help out at Kyosuke’s bathhouse. She makes friends with a local film-maker and a man who runs an Ethiopian restaurant.

Directed by Ryutaro Nakagawa, from a script by Nakagawa, Hikaru Kimura and Keitaro Sakon, “Mio on the Shore” is a contemplative slice-of-life drama, its story unfolding slowly with plenty of time for ruminating on the characters state of mind. There is some stunning scenery to look at of the rural waterside town where Mio lives, beautifully captured by cinematographer Rei Hirano. The long lingering shots, accompanied only by ambient noise, create a meditative atmosphere, allowing us to sit quietly with Mio and experience her own sense of anomie or aimlessness. Some of the film’s most powerful moments are these wordless scenes of visual poetry, looking out over an expanse of water, or sitting in a dark bathhouse. It is very much a film that forgoes plot for a fragmentary approach, highlighting several incidents and conversations that build up a portrait of everyday life. The charming score by Hisaki Kato provides the perfect accompaniment. Mio is a likeable protagonist, shy and enigmatic, her inner world often closed to us, but nevertheless intriguing. Mitsushi’s Kyosuke also seems to be harbouring a secret, a conflicted character dealing with his own demons. There are allusions to their pasts, but very little is made explicit.

Towards the end of the film we see a montage of businesses closing down, perhaps the closest the film comes to making a statement on its theme. “Mio on the Shore” is a film about things drawing to an end and what is left behind when they are gone. Whether businesses, relationships, or human life, all of these things are finite. The English title “Mio on the Shore” perhaps a reference to this borderline between being and not being, while the Japanese title “Holding Light in your Hand”, referencing a poem that is recited in the film, speaks to the ephemeral, ineffable, ethereal, spiritual world, the transience of all things and how humans live in a society where nothing lasts forever. While it may seem like a depressing notion, the film offers a hope in the sense that there is light in the world, even if we are not able to hold on to it for long. We cannot hold on to the past, but we can enjoy life while it is here. A poetic ode to the fleeting nature of existence. A beautifully shot film that reminds us that while everything in life is temporary, there is beauty in its transience.

Three-foot Ball & Souls (2017) by Yoshio Kato

Four individuals learn about one another’s lives when they gather to commit joint suicide. Happa (Kanji Tsuda) has created a 3-foot sphere packed with fireworks with which to carry out their plans. He is joined in a small shed by a young man named Baby Doll (Minehiro Kinomoto), each of them having chosen an alias on the online forum where they met. The two men are subsequently joined by Tsubasa (Shinobu Tsuji), and finally by high-schooler Tsukiko (Honoka Murakami). However, Tsukiko’s arrival makes the others uneasy, feeling she is too young to commit suicide. They attempt to talk her out of it. Through their conversations with each other we learn what led them to this point.

There is a major twist in this film that completely changes both the tone, and perhaps even the genre. If you want to avoid spoilers, then I suggest you check out the film before reading further. The majority of the story is focussed on these four individuals in a single location, relying on an excellent script with everything from black comedy to heart-wrenchingly emotional moments. By treating the subject of suicide somewhat lightly, the more emotional scenes pack more of a punch, the darkness of their individual struggles made more poignant by the lighthearted banter they engage in. The characterisation of the four protagonists is well-done, fleshing out particular archetypes through solid writing an excellent performances. Happa is a typical goofy father, making inappropriate jokes and trying to keep people’s spirits up. Baby Doll/Takamura is a downtrodden, nervous, young man, suffering work-related stress. Tsubasa’s story is perhaps one of the most tragic, and Honoko Murakami brings real passion to the role of Tsukiko’s shy schoolgirl dealing with bullying. As mentioned previously, the film begins as a low-key drama, simple setting, small cast, but following the first explosion, when the characters are transported back to relive the same events over, it strays into science-fiction. It is an interesting way of having the characters truly battle with the morality or necessity of suicide, in a way that would not be possible if they simply succeeded in their first attempt.

The subject of suicide is never an easy one. The film allows us to see some of the reasons why people are driven to suicide and to sympathise with the protagonists. Through seeing things from the perspective of others they are able to better understand their situation and discover a different path. The final message, that people can solve issues such as anxiety and depression through talking out their problems, may seem quaint, but is nevertheless important. A unique film with a determined focus on its theme and characters, that delivers a number of surprises and some excellent performances.

Theatre: A Love Story (2020) by Isao Yukisada

Following a chance meeting on the street and a brief romance, impoverished playwright Nagata (Kento Yamazaki) and Saki (Mayu Matsuoka) move in together. Their relationship is far from easy though. Nagata is writing for a theatre troupe called “Oroka” which he established with his school friend Nohara (Kanichiro Sato), but his lack of success leads the group to slowly fall apart. Saki does her best to encourage him, but his difficult personality, driven by his anxiety and ego, lead to arguments between the two.

Written by Ryuta Horai and directed by Isao Yukisada, “Theatre: A Love Story” is a poignant look at a troubled relationship. Over the course of the film we witness Nagata and Saki as they attempt to work out their differences and support one another in their own ways. The script gives us numerous moments that reflect those parts of romantic relationships that often go unrepresented on film. Awkward silences, arguments about nothing much at all, the inexpressible joy of simply being together, or moments of silliness that help to build that indefinable bond. It is touching to hear Nagata talk of the warmth he feels simply hearing Saki laugh; and Saki’s clear devotion to her boyfriend. The well-observed script is brought to life by an excellent cast. Kento Yamazaki and Mayu Matsuoka create a believable couple, perfect in their imperfections. Yamazaki’s Nagata is a brooding, frustrated young man who takes out his anxieties and feelings of inadequacy on Saki, while Matsuoka’s Saki is both endlessly charming, funny and charismatic, yet harbouring deep dissatisfaction with her own life and Nagata, supporting him despite her misgivings. The supporting cast, including Kanichiro Sato as Nagata’s urbane friend, and Sairi Ito as Aoyama, a former member of Nagata’s acting troupe who goes on to find success as a theatre critic, further underscoring his own lack of achievement, all do an incredible job with the naturalistic style of dialogue. Throughout there are hints to the theatrical, in Nagata’s narration of his life and relationship, his inner thoughts constantly chewing over his insecurities. There are also poetic monologues, such as when he is taking Saki home on his bike, vocalising his feelings for her. The wistful score and direction sweep us along on the journey with these two lovers, whose relationship can often seem incomprehensible given their difference in personality: Saki is outgoing and fun, while Nagata seems often miserable and misanthropic.

“Theatre: A Love Story” is a film about a man who is struggling with various insecurities. He lashes out at those around him, variously criticising other playwrights, refusing to go to Disneyland as he believes he can’t enjoy other people’s creations, and refusing to let Saki enjoy other people’s work. His controlling, often petulant behaviour, masks a deep-seated fear of rejection and his neuroses about his own ability. Jealousy over more successful writers lead to him being angry or upset at Saki without really knowing why. All of these facets of human psychology and relationships are insightfully written and portrayed in the film. Nagata is far from a likeable character, but as things progress we come to an understanding of his behaviour. Saki on the other hand indulges Nagata’s worst impulses, giving him exactly what he wants, attention and praise, but not what he needs, a cool appreciation of his abilities and his flaws. A beautifully wrought relationship drama that deftly depicts the various complexities of human emotions and a poignant portrait of a man dealing with his own sense of inadequacy.