The Mourning Forest (2007) by Naomi Kawase

Machiko (Machiko Ono) has recently started work at a nursing home for the elderly in rural Kansai. It is revealed in flashback that she has lost a young son in an unspecified accident after letting go of his hand, something for which her partner cannot forgive her. One of the care home residents, Shigeki (Shigeki Uda), is a man struggling with dementia whose wife died thirty-three years ago. Shigeki struggles with outbursts of emotion and anger, especially when Machiko attempts to move his bag. A priest visiting the home tells them that thirty-three years after death a person will become one with Buddha, and therefore will be unreachable by the living. Machiko and Shigeki develop a relationship that grows warmer as time progresses and she decides to take him on a day trip. When the car breaks down, the two are stranded in the countryside. Shigeki leads her on a long hike through the woods, during which they both process their grief.

“The Mourning Forest” is a heartfelt look at death and the effect it has on those left behind. It is explained later in the film that “Mogari” (in the Japanese title) refers to not only the period of mourning, but the place of mourning. For Machiko and Shigeki, the journey through the forest is a metaphorical journey through grief to acceptance. We learn little about Machiko’s son and Shigeki’s wife, and there is a palpable emptiness at the heart of the film that perfectly captures the feeling of bereavement. The sequence in which Shigeki plays a duet before being left along with the plaintive notes of his solo melody ringing out in the dark perfectly typifies this sense of loss following the death of a loved one. The performances from Machiko Ono and Shigeki Uda are raw and believable. Machiko is a character putting a brave face on her loss, attempting to find reason for living. Even in his confusion, Shigeki senses that something is missing from his life. The priest early in the film explains that living has two meanings, not only physically existing but feeling and experiencing things. It is often the case that people close themselves off from the world following the passing of a loved one. In their arduous hike through the forest, Machiko and Shigeki, experience hardships and suffering as well as positive moments, and it is all of these combined that contribute to a sense of living. The film features some stunning cinematography, particularly in the shots of the natural world, whether a butterfly hovering above a stream or the towering trees of the forest. There is a gentle piano score that compliments this sense of a rural idyll, and a natural world that can be both beautiful and terrifying.

The film will not be for everyone. At times it is slow and ponderous, often with little dialogue, focussing on the cinematography, score and acting to tell its story. The dark themes, of loss and mourning, also make it a tough watch. However, the film’s gentle contemplation of death is handled well and the beautiful direction and superb acting make it worthwhile for those looking for something with deep meaning and resonance.

Distance (2001) by Hirokazu Koreeda

“Distance” begins as the anniversary of a terrorist attack poisoning Tokyo’s water supply is approaching. The attack, which killed hundreds and injured thousands, ended with the cult members responsible committing suicide. Four individuals, partners and relations of the cult members, make a pilgrimage on this anniversary to the lake where they died. Kiyoka (Yui Natsukawa), a teacher whose husband joined, meets up with Minoru (Susumu Terajima), whose wife also left him to become a member. Along with Atsushi (Arata Iura) and Masaru (Yusuke Iseya), whose brother and sister respectively took part in the incident, the four of them head to the lake, driving deep into the forest. While there they meet Sakata (Tadanobu Asano), a former member of the cult who fled before the others went through with their plan. When they return to their car they find it has been stolen, along with Sakata’s bike, and the five are forced to take refuge in a nearby house that was used by the cult.

Writer and director Hirokazu Koreeda excels at bringing the best out of his actors. Within a few short scenes or snatches of dialogue we are completely invested in their characters. Whether it is Atsushi with his girlfriend, or the scenes in which the four meet up, they are able to capture the essence of who they are with a shorthand and chemistry that make their relationships believable and engaging. All of the central performances are pitched perfectly as they deal with the layers of guilt, loss and regret, all while attempting to continue with their lives. Koreeda’s realist approach to can be seen in the dialogue which feels natural, getting across information without feeling weighed down by exposition. There are several long takes, such as Kiyoka with her husband and Minoru with his wife, in flashback, where we see the advantage of giving characters room to breathe. In Minoru’s scene in particular there is a sense of helplessness to his situation that is emphasised by the extended scene. Where others may cut away when the central message has been communicated, that his wife is leaving to join the cult, we are put right in his shoes as he rages confusedly about this, unable to walk away from the situation as the scene becomes increasingly uncomfortable for both him and the audience. Koreeda also uses hand-held camerawork to take us inside their world, stripping away the artificial nature of film to create something more documentary-like in style. The film also features interview segments with most of the protagonists, with them being questioned by the police after the events, that stand in stark contrast to the scenes in the forest, from  a static angle with the characters dead centre. This helps get across the message of life as messy and at odds with the world of law and order as typified by the police.

The film is loosely inspired by real-world events in which cults have committed terrorist acts. Rather than going for an obvious critique of such groups, Koreeda instead focusses on those surrounding the members. The film asks difficult questions about why people join such cults, but also whether their friends, partners and family should or are able to stop them. The responsibility for these acts must ultimately reside with the individual, but we see through the story of Atsushi that there may be warning signs that are missed and that catastrophe might be averted. It investigates the notion of societal as opposed to personal responsibility. The film is infused with this melancholy and sense of regret that nothing was done to stop them. It is also interesting to note that the central characters are not victims of the attacks, but relatives of the perpetrators, and in the case of Sakata someone actively involved in the cult. It is a film that provokes thought on these subjects without offering any easy answers. We see in the character of Minoru that his ignorance, perhaps lack of care, about his wife may have contributed to her joining the cult. Similarly, Atsushi is shown to be distant from his brother. At heart “Distance” is a film about dealing with tragedy and seeking understanding and redemption. The title also suggests a sense that people remain isolated from one another, even those who they believe they are closest to, and ponders whether it is ever possible to really know somebody. The interview scenes are reminiscent of “Rashomon” and the film can be read as an investigation of the nature of truth, with the police representing the supposed objective reality and the characters experiences and reminiscences a more subjective understanding of who these individuals were. A beautifully crafted film with incredible acting that takes the audience on a journey into the dark and unexplored regions of human psychology.

NEET Election (2015) by Hikaru Okita and Kiminari Suzuki

Chihiro Inagaki (Kento Kasahara) is a 30-year old NEET, not in education, employment or training. Despite being a top student, and graduating from a prestigious university, he quit his first job after three months after realising that the world of work was not what he had expected. Following his short-lived career he heads to Tokyo to become an actor, but alas this is also doomed to failure. Finding himself back in his hometown of Niigata, he is struggling to get a job, being rejected from every interview he applies for. Chihiro moves into a share-house with other 30-somethings lacking gainful employment, these include Yumi, a woman who still harbours dreams of working in a maid café, Shiho, a former idol, Shinnosuke and Mr. K, a wannabe wrestler never seen without his mask on. The group want to take over one of the shuttered units in the local shopping precinct, but they are unable to convince anyone to lend them money or support their efforts. Finding himself at a loss, Chihiro meets a man who tells him the best way to get the government to listen is to stand to be an assemblyman in the upcoming city elections. Chihiro sets out to do just this, listening to residents problems and working on his pitch to represent the young people of Niigata city.

“NEET Election” is a solid idea but sadly lacking in its execution. It meanders around far too often and needlessly stretches a thin plot to breaking point. The film is intended as a comedy, but a lot of the jokes fall flat. It is clear that the filmmakers wanted to go for a wacky, loveable comedy about a man struggling against the system, but the set-ups and payoffs of the jokes just aren’t really there. One example of where the film does live up to the promise of an over-the-top comedy is in an impromptu flash-mob performance in the centre of town to generate interest in Chihiro’s campaign. But this feels a little out of place in comparison with the rest of the film that revolves around him talking to citizens, delivering speeches and listening to their problems. A bigger problem than the dearth of comedic moments is the lack of any serious connection with the characters. We find out about the shopkeepers who are struggling through the recession, but the woman whose sweetshop is on the verge of closure seems unconcerned, and we don’t see people particularly concerned about it. Likewise, Chihiro’s fellow NEETs seem to almost shrug off their situation, not pleased by it, but far form angry or upset by the lack of jobs. A moment later in the film, where Chihiro is accosted by two women asking about Japan’s nuclear energy industry, again gives an example of where the film could have delved a little deeper into the difficulties of running for office, but it is almost passed over.

The film doesn’t really succeed as a comedy or political drama, with too few laughs and too little detail or emotional investment garnered for the characters. This is a shame because voter apathy is something that is a real problem and the film had the potential to create engagement with the subject of politics. Kasahara is good in the lead role, and the supporting cast do their best with the material, but it could have gone much further in detailing the genuine problems faced by people and how difficult it is to break through in the political system. Instead it comes across as a bland exploration of its subject, never fully developing the premise into something entertaining.

Madadayo (1993) by Akira Kurosawa

A professor of German at an all-boys school in Tokyo is taking his final lesson. He explains to the class that he is now able to make enough money from his books and has decided to give up teaching to pursue a writing career. He is self-deprecating, funny, and clearly  beloved of the class who hang on his every word. One of the students tells him that he is respected even by students who have left the school, still according him the title “teacher”. Following his retirement from the school, some students continue to call on him at home where they are welcomed in and treated to the professor’s humorous anecdotes and philosophizing. They decide to honour his birthday each year with a celebration that they call “Maadakai”, a play on words that sounds like the question “Not yet?” in reference to his longevity, to which the professor jokingly replies that he will respond “Madadayo” (not yet!).

Akira Kurosawa’s final film is a beautifully crafted portrait of aging, touching on themes of nostalgia, time, and loss, among other things. The film begins in the latter years of the second world war, when Japan was subjected to bombing raids, catching up with his story at intervals over the following decades. The film uses light and colour to great effect in emphasising particular moments, such as red sunlight indicating an auspicious moment. The professor mentions that he never sleeps with the lights off as he is afraid of the dark. He believes that those who are not afraid lack imagination and as such have a defect as a human. At the end of the film the camera moves upwards to a sky that shifts through several colours. Kurosawa was known to paint out his own storyboards and as such colour has a deep significance in his work. One of the standout moments of the film comes when we see the professor and his wife in their small home, following the destruction of their own, as the seasons are changing. It is a wonderful moment, without any dialogue, as we see the slow passage of time with this couple.

Tatsuo Matsumura plays the professor perfectly. He is kind and charismatic, funny and intelligent. It is clear that he was born to be a teacher, as he is able to completely captivate his students with whatever he is saying. They look up to him as an ideal, while also gently ribbing him about his unusual way of thinking. The supporting cast are all great. Kyoko Kagawa plays the professors wife with understated compassion, clearly devoted to her husband. The main group of students are also interesting characters, clearly all having taken different paths in life, but with the same respect and admiration for their former professor.

The professor’s final decades coincide with Kurosawa’s early years as a film-maker and it is clear to see that there is a sense of nostalgia running through everything. The professor loves old songs and sayings and his peculiar sense of humour is something his students take particular delight in (such as his unique burglar protection system). We see this relationship between the younger and older generations as something positive, with them looking up in admiration. Perhaps this is Kurosawa’s way of paying homage to those who have gone before and according them the respect they deserve. Kurosawa shows his mastery of direction in the framing of each scene, in particular the many large group or crowd sequences when there is a turmoil of action and laughter. In working with these large groups he succeeds in multiplying the emotional impact of each moment as the students work almost as a singular entity either laughing or honouring their professor as a collective. The clearest example of this is when they come together, moving backwards and forwards as the waves of the sea to ask him “Maadakai?” during the first birthday celebration.

An elegant depiction of a man who is well-loved and respected, giving everyone something to aspire to. The film’s tender portrayal of the love that his former students still have for him is heart-warming to watch. The ideals of kindness, selflessness, and good humour are shown to be reciprocated by the students, and the film carries this uplifting message through to the end. A worthwhile watch that is packed with some very funny moments, a touching message about kinship and community, and bittersweet ruminations on growing old.

Paranoia Agent (2004)

A series of interconnected stories tied together by the sinister figure of a roller-blading, bat-wielding assailant known as “Lil’ Slugger” (Daisuke Sakaguchi). The series begins with Tsukiko Sagi (Mamiko Noto), who designs a popular character named Maromi (Haruko Momoi), a pink cartoon dog; a mascot who becomes something of a talisman for her company and their most popular character. She is soon under pressure to create another success on that level, and while walking home is attacked by an shadowy figure wearing golden rollerblades and swinging a golden bat. As she recovers in the hospital, two detectives, Keiichi Ikari (Shozo Iizuka) and Mitsuhiro Maniwa (Toshihiko Seki) are put on the case, tracking down the young boy believed to be responsible for the assault. Throughout the series we are introduced to various characters, each of which suffer some kind of trauma, paranoia, fear, or stress, and all of whom are targeted by the mysterious figure of Lil’ Slugger.

Directed and co-written by Satoshi Kon (Perfect Blue, Tokyo Godfathers), the film has a dark tone throughout, dealing with themes of violence, suicide, abuse, and having realistic and unsympathetic characters. Black humour is often used to alleviate some of the tension, but the overwhelming sensation while watching will be one of confusion. The stories often seem to break down into dream-sequences or other surreal moments, feature characters whose fragile psyches seem to be collapsing as the plot progresses. It becomes clear early on that this is not a straightforward mystery, and that there may be a supernatural or psychological element to the story. I was concerned that the ending would be a let-down, considering the fantastic premise and set-up, but I was not disappointed. There is a sense of fulfilment at the end of the story, a sort of catharsis for the characters, and the whole thing ties together thematically, if not strictly logically. The script is excellent, building up a sense of real characters, living in surreal circumstances, with great voice acting by the whole cast. Some episodes in particular are inspired, such as the episode centred on an animation studio and the various jobs that entails. Emphasising the dualistic nature of the series, the score by Susumu Hirasawa is likewise ominous and cheery by turns. It is best to go into this show not knowing too much about it, as there are some great twists and turns.

The series deals with some very serious themes, depression, anxiety, suicide, mental disorders, as well as painting a picture of a dysfunctional society. The character of Lil’ Slugger is left somewhat open to interpretation, as a psychological phenomenon conjured from the fevered imaginings of the protagonists, or as an elemental force that descends on people who are feeling life is too much for them. I would highly recommend this series to anyone who enjoys psychological horror, mystery, and something that will have you scratching your head throughout attempting to figure out the significance of it all.