Any Crybabies Around? (2020) by Takuma Sato

A young husband and father, Tasuku (Taiga Nakano) tries to make amends for his previous misbehaviour in this emotional drama. The Namahage festival is a point of local pride in the northern town of Akita. Each year men dress up in straw costumes and terrifying demon masks, moving from house to house warning children to be good and not to cry. Tasuku heads out to the festival, leaving his wife Kotone (Riho Yoshioka) and young daughter Nagi at home. However, after drinking too much he ends up running down the street naked, embarrassing both himself and the town. What’s worse is that the festival was being televised to give the whole country a look at this important tradition. Two years later we find Tasuku living in Tokyo, having separated from Kotone. His best friend Shiba (Kanichiro Sato) turns up and encourages Tasuku to come back to their hometown. Tasuko sees the opportunity to redeem himself and perhaps rekindle his relationship with Kotone and his daughter.

“Any Crybabies Around?”, written and directed by Takuma Sato, gives us a look at a rural community in northern Japan and the festival of Namahage. It is always great to see these cultural traditions represented in film, in much the same way that the recent “Ainu Mosir” focussed on the Ainu festivals. It is a film in which relatively little happens, instead focusing on character, the plot is essentially Tasuku asking for forgiveness for what he has done and trying to come to terms with his past mistakes. The sedate pacing gives the audience time to reflect on what has happened and sympathise with the characters, allowing you to make your own mind up on whether his fate is justified. The acting from Taiga Nakano and Riho Yoshioka as Tasuku and Kotone gives us a look at a separated couple with an uncomfortable relationship. What remains of the love between them is hidden beneath layers of hurt and shame, their recriminations often painful to witness. Scenes of sparse or no dialogue give the actors great opportunity to show their talent, drawing us in to the story of this doomed romance, and again giving the audience final judgement on their actions. The cinematography utilises the landscape to heighten the emotional tension. The crashing waves against the cliffs are a perfect visual metaphor for both the surging passions of Tasuku and the impassive, monolithic traditions of the town that shape everyone who lives there.

The film is about a man atoning for past mistakes and trying to make things right. As a young father, Tasuku’s drunken escapade may hardly seem like the kind of thing to worry about. However, in this rural town we feel the oppressive weight of tradition and the importance of compliance to cultural norms. As in many tight-knit communities, each person is bound to each other through ties of heritage, and the significance placed on continuing traditional festivals such as Namahage is a matter of more than simple pride for some. Tasuku’s behaviour is considered a disrespect to the town elders, perhaps even past generations, more than an unfortunate error of judgement. Tasuku is a tragic hero, his odyssey seeing him in self-imposed exile in Tokyo before finally making the journey back to his hometown. This semi-mythic narrative works well with the focus on Namahage, almost creating its own legend alongside that more ancient one. It is also a film about the loneliness of ostracization for those who have fallen short of what society expects. In showing us the aftermath of a man who has erred and is on a journey of redemption, the film gives us an insight into the often stifling nature of society, where respect for the past is of paramount importance. The final moments of the film are a devastating denouement, with a heart-wrenching scene that works perfectly both narratively and symbolically. A worthwhile watch about a man struggling to regain his place in society after a spectacular fall from grace.

Tiger: My Life as a Cat (2019) by Masaya Kakehi

Suzuo (Hiromitsu Kitayama) is a struggling manga artist. His most famous work, “Cat-Man”, has stalled before publication of the final volume. Suzuo has no interest in finishing this project, instead spending his time gambling at pachinko or the racecourse. Also, he hates cats and only drew the comic because he knew it would sell. His wife, Natsuko (Mikako Tabe), and daughter, Miyu (Kokoro Hirasawa) remain devoted to him despite his apparent laziness and inability to stick to his deadlines. When he is hit by a car and killed he is allowed to return to earth as a cat and manages to become part of Natsuko and Miyu’s lives again, although they remain largely unaware of his presence. He is helped by fellow cat, Whitest (Marie Itoyo), who teaches him what it means to comfort his family.

Based on the manga by Mina Itaba, with a screenplay by Toshiya Ono, this family film about losing a parent manages to balance lighthearted humour with some challenging themes. It is clear early on that Suzuo and Miyu’s relationship is loving. Despite his failings as a father she looks up to him, emulating him by drawing her own manga. The film’s central conceit is handled well with Kitayama dressed in a cat costume, rather than relying on digital effects. We do occasionally see him as an actual cat, but the choice to have him play the character in costume allows for much more emotional scenes between him and his daughter. The lack of flashy special effects also means that you are not distracted from the story and the acting can shine. Many of the scenes rely on the performances and dialogue as opposed to slapstick or low-brow comedy, such as when Suzuo arrives at the judgement desk of heaven, which is played as an amusing two-handed sketch between him and the judge, played by comic writer and actor Bakarhythm. Hiromitsu Kitayama’s comedic performance is highly entertaining, moving on from the initial fish-out-of-water humour when he is first reincarnated, to character driven humour and pathos. Young actor Kokoro Hirasawa is incredible as his daughter and provides the film an emotional core with some heart-breaking scenes between her and her father. “Tiger” is often surprisingly well shot for a film that is a knockabout comedy. The sequence when Suzuo chases the ambulance, or the scenes through the window, the warm room stark against the darkening night, show the filmmakers taking even a surreal comedy like this seriously.

“Tiger” is a film about dealing with the loss of a parent. Miyu, perhaps even more so than Suzuo, becomes the centre of the drama as she tries to come to term with her father’s death. Despite feeling ashamed of his behaviour at times she remains devoted to him and his sudden death forces her into reconciling her emotions and understanding her relationship with him. There is also a theme of what we are able to give to others. Suzuo is asked by the judge in the afterlife what he intends to do if he is given the chance to return and it is only later he realises what his role is for his daughter. As Suzuo explains to Whiteness, when she also has to deal with a bereavement, sometimes just being there is enough. For a film aimed at children the difficult themes are not glossed over. The use of reincarnation is not used as a way to sidestep the tragic inevitability of death, but rather offers a way of dealing with the grief it causes those who remain. The death of Suzuo is brutal and final and the film’s exploration of his passing is refreshingly unsentimental, giving us a look at coping and moving on for those left behind.

Blue, Painful, Fragile (2020) by Shunsuke Kariyama

Ryo Yoshizawa and Hana Sugisaki star in this young adult drama about two students with big dreams. Kaede Tabata (Yoshizawa) maintains a philosophy of absolute non-engagement, his belief being that if you do not connect with people you can’t hurt them or be hurt by them. This all changes when he meets Hisano Akiyoshi (Sugisaki), a bright and socially conscious classmate. Hisano is someone who believes in changing the world for the better, ending poverty, war and discrimination. The two decide to begin a club called Moai, with the intention of running social events and improving things in a small way. However, as the club becomes larger it evolves into a group for connecting students with potential employers, and Kaede is forced to reassess whether he really wants to be a part of this more corporate club or whether it should continue at all.

While the film contains elements of romantic comedy drama, it also has a strong message about social issues and the difficulties in trying to make positive change in the world. The two protagonists are diametrically opposed in their worldviews, one a pessimist who believes change is impossible and that the best approach is simply not to try and alter things; and the other convinced that everyone can make a difference to the world. It is fun to watch the dynamic between these two, helped by great performances by Ryo Yoshizawa and Hana Sugisaki. Their clashing personalities make both their friendships and the disagreements between Kaede and Hisano feel genuine. The supporting cast, including Amane Okayama as Kaede’s friend Tosuke, Honoka Matsumoto and Nana Mori do a great job as idealistic young characters who . Yoshizawa and Okayama work great as the friends, with many of the funniest scenes together. The plot has a couple of twists that make it more interesting than an average drama. It flicks back and forth over the space of two years to show what the club was and what it became, which helps create a sense of mild intrigue as to what happened in the intervening time. The film is rarely entirely serious in tone, even when it touches on more serious themes of corruption, sexual harassment and abuse of power, instead remaining firmly in the comfortable territory of soft focus, brightly lit scenes featuring a cast always looking their best.

“Blue, Painful, Fragile” is a film that really captures the personalities of its characters and their relatable dilemmas in attempting to work co-operatively. It covers a number of issues that will be particularly pertinent to its younger target audience, including the social issues such as climate change, poverty, discrimination and war; the issues of corporatism corrupting any potentially benevolent social enterprise; data privacy; sexual harassment and mistreatment of women. But at its heart it is the central conflict between the two leads that drives the story. People are problematic, with their own jealousies and insecurities jeopardizing any attempts to do good. The film shows us that Kaede is kind hearted in his desire to do no harm, but his reticence to engage means he is also not making any positive contribution to society. On the contrary, Hisano wants to do good, but unwittingly ends up creating something that evolves into an organisation that has little to do with her high-minded ideals.

A Girl Missing (2019) by Koji Fukada

A woman is tortured by regrets in this mysterious thriller from Harmonium director Koji Fukada. Ichiko Shirakawa (Mariko Tsutsui) works as a home care nurse. As well as looking after the elderly Toko Oishi (Hisako Okata) she also tutors her two grandchildren, Motoko (Mikako Ichikawa) and Saki (Miyu Ozawa). When Saki is kidnapped and later returns, Ichiko is shocked to learn that the kidnapper was somebody close to her. Deciding not to tell Saki’s mother, she later comes to regret the secrets she has kept as she is harassed by the media, forcing her out of her job. Ichiko later begins a relationship with a man named Yoneda (Sosuke Ikematsu) who may also have a connection to the Oishi family.

Writer and director Koji Fukada (Harmonium) again creates a unique crime drama in which the focus is not on the crime itself, but on the lives it impacts. We learn little about the kidnapping, the motivation behind it, or exactly what happened to Saki. Ichiko is drawn into the emotional vortex caused by the incident, a scapegoat for everyone’s anger and confusion; and it is her struggle that we bear witness too. The film begins with Ichiko having changed her appearance and beginning a friendship with a Yoneda, who works as a hairdresser. As the story moves back and forth between the present and the past, the mystery is built up layer on layer, with more unanswered questions arising with each twist. It seems that we are always just on the cusp of some major revelation that remains out of reach. The film is understated, creating a slow burn tension as we see the characters spark off each other. Fukada is a writer who is comfortable to let things go unsaid or wrap them in metaphor and mystery. “A Girl Missing” pulls the rug out from under us by providing a crime set-up and then turning the camera away from the facts surrounding the case to instead focus on a character who has little direct involvement with the crime. This may prove frustrating to some, but works beautifully as a complex character study. The excellent performances, especially from Mariko Tsutsui and Mikako Ichikawa help to bring the film to life, both giving engaging performances as women dealing with difficult situations. Tsutsui shows us the slow deterioration of a woman who feels resentful at being unfairly targeted by those looking for someone to blame. Mikako Ichikawa is a sphinx-like in her portrayal of Motoko, harbouring her own secrets and shame. Fukada’s direction manages to create drama from a film that is largely comprised of dialogues. There are several stylish touches, such as the smoke rising early in the film, or the empty house towards the end, that show a knack for visual storytelling, capturing tone and theme simply yet effectively. While the film is largely realist, the occasional moments of avante garde expressionism fit perfectly in this world that seems slightly out of the ordinary, like looking at our society through a distorted mirror.

“A Girl Missing” is an unsettling watch, detailing the descent into paranoia and anxiety of an innocent woman beset by feelings of unnecessary guilt. It speaks to a society where shame and opprobrium are often levelled at those least deserving. The discussion between Ichiko and Motoko, sharing their tales of covert sexual behaviour provides perhaps the clearest key to understanding what the film is about. Society tells people to hide their shame regarding sex, causing later subconscious traumas for those who repress their feelings and instincts. There is discussion of the possible rape of Saki which highlights the dangers associated with a society where these behaviours are rarely discussed. Saki is unwilling to share what happened to her and this fear of speaking out, often through shame, is just one danger of a society which rarely wants to confront its own nature. The film shows us a media who are desperate for an easy answer, to wrap the case up, perhaps unaware that there is genuine suffering and emotional pain that cannot be so easily dealt with. The film’s major strength is that we never learn what happened to Saki; and we never learn the truth about Ichiko’s story. It leaves us with the uncomfortable realisation that humans will continue to mistreat one another; and that we will never fully understand each other or human psychology unless we are truly open to examining it without prejudice. The focus on the details of these cases blind us to the truth that we are all capable of causing pain. The immaterial specifics often distract us from dealing with our own sense of shame, guilt, and fear that drives these harmful behaviours.

From Miyamoto to You (2019) by Tetsuya Mariko

Hiroshi Miyamoto (Sosuke Ikematsu) falls in love with Yasuko Nakano (Yu Aoi) at first sight. Compassionate and caring to a fault, Miyamoto is even undeterred by Yasuko’s former boyfriend barging into her apartment while he is there. Their relationship soon hits rocky waters however when Yasuko is raped by the son of Miyamoto’s boss, Takuma (Wataru Ichinose), a tough rugby player whose charisma earns him an invite to sleep over at Miyamoto and Yasuko’s apartment following a drinking session. Following the attack, Miyamoto decides to go all out to hunt down Takuma and punish him, but finds it difficult given his physical weakness. This frustration at his inability to protect Yasuko and harm Takuma sends him spiralling into a rage for revenge. Things are further complicated when Yasuko discovers that she is pregnant.

Director Tetsuya Mariko (Destruction Babies) continues his fascination with male violence in this adaptation from the manga by Hideki Arai. The film is achronological in structure, beginning with a sequence showing Miyamoto bloodied from a fight and apologising to his boss for a recent fracas. We then see Yasuko, who is pregnant, and Miyamoto at their soon-to-be parent’s in laws, explaining that they are to be married. It makes for a bold opening, raising questions about what Miyamoto was fighting for, how this couple, who may have secrets they are keeping from their parents met, and exactly what is going on. Sosuke Ikematsu and Yu Aoi are excellent in the lead roles, able to shift in an instant from cosy, likeable couple, to screaming fury or howling grief. It is a change that is required as the sucker punch that comes in the form of Takuma, played perfectly with charmingly concealed malice by Wataru Ichinose, shifts the film from a simple drama into something more akin to a theatrical tragedy. From the realism of these early conversations we are suddenly given their souls laid bare, the pain and suffering evident in their faces, tears streaming, snot flying, beet-red contorted physiognomies leaving nothing to be expressed. The latter half of the film sees Miyamoto on what might be described as a legendary quest to slay the monster who has perpetrated this evil on his princess. He sets out with grim determination, the low chance of success driving him to increasing anger. “From Miyamoto to You” is a film that plays with expectations in more ways than one, with the structure offering us a puzzle to piece together once all the evidence is gathered, and a strange concatenation of tonally divergent moments. This is evidenced early on with the appearance of Yasuko’s former lover, which is at once alarming, suggestions of infidelity and perhaps domestic abuse, and amusing, with his unhinged rambling and bizarre behaviour. Later in the film we are given an even starker example in the fight between Miyamoto and Takuma, which runs the gamut from horror to slapstick and back as they trade blows.

The framing of Miyamoto is incredible, with Mariko showing a flair for staging the actors for maximum impact. The contemplative moments, with individual characters or couples framed by the environs of their apartments, are captured with a clever use of camera and minimal movement; while the latter explosive emotional outbursts are captured with an eager and energetic camera that pulls us into the action.

“Miyamoto” is a film about male potency and how men see themselves, both personally and in terms of their relationships. The rape in the film is truly shocking and unexpected and the uncomfortable feeling of being violated remains with the audience throughout. In the past films have dealt with the consequences of rape for the victims, but here the focus is on the partner of the victim and how he comes to terms with both what has happened and his inability to prevent it. The film deals with primal fears and emotions, with the protagonist battling his own inadequacy along with the injustice that has been perpetrated. The fantastic performances by Ikematsu and Aoi as this loving couple who are torn apart by tragedy help to draw us into a narrative that offers a glimpse of humanity at its most brutal and atavistic. Despite the violence, the film nevertheless has moments of hope, with Miyamoto’s quixotic quest bringing out his best qualities as well as his worst.