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.

Rainbow Song (2006) by Naoto Kumazawa

Tomoya Kishida (Hayato Ichihara) is working as a runner for a production company, currently recording a pop music video. He is an awkward young man, constantly talked down to by his superiors and seemingly unable to do anything correctly, although he is likeable and keen to please. He sends a text to an old friend, Aoi Sato (Juri Ueno), who he has not seen in a number of years after she moved to America. Kishida is later upset to learn from a news report that Aoi has died in a plane crash. He attends the funeral with his boss Higuchi, meeting her parents and her sister Kana (Yu Aoi) who is blind. On the drive home, as Holst plays on the car radio, Kishida thinks back to his time with Aoi. The film is told in a chaptered style, beginning at the end and slowly working back around to the beginning. We see Kishida’s initial meeting with Aoi, when he was chasing another girl whom she worked with. Due to his persistence, they eventually form an uneasy friendship. Aoi, a budding director, decides to cast him in her first amateur film “The End of the World”. Their relationship develops slowly and it is clear that they both have feelings for one another, but Kishida lacks the confidence to tell her how he feels.

“Rainbow Song” is an interesting twist on the traditional relationship drama, since we already know from the beginning what happens to Aoi, and that Kishida and Aoi did not end up together. This is to the film’s advantage as it takes the focus off the usual will-they-won’t-they hook and allows for a much more nuanced and poignant examination of their relationship. While it largely steers clear of cliché, the film knows exactly how to pull at the audiences heartstrings, with a piano and string score by Hiroaki Yamashita that swells at all the right moments. The film also uses Holst’s “Venus” and “Jupiter” a lot, pieces that have significance later on as the soundtrack to Aoi’s film. The music is occasionally a little overpowering in moments that could have relied solely on the performances of the two lead actors.

Kishida is a believably nuanced character, shy, sincere, funny, unambitious, honest. Hayato Ichihara is perfectly cast, humorous and charming in his confused interactions with women, either hitting on someone who is already taken, or failing to notice Aoi’s developing feelings towards him. Juri Ueno also shines in her role as we see her transform from annoyance at his behaviour to acceptance and later affection at his quirks. The script offers many fantastic moments with the pair and they have a good chemistry together. Surprisingly, given the tragic events that open the film there are a few very funny scenes. One of the best moments is Kishida’s ill-fated experience at a speed dating event he is taken to by Aoi. Again, the brilliance of the premise is that even in the moments of romance or humour there is always the dark cloud of the inevitable tragedy lingering over everything.

The staging of “Rainbow Song” is noteworthy as it often drives the narrative forward. The positioning of characters in relation to each other and  their surroundings tells the story just as much as the dialogue and acting. The cinematography also provides some beautiful moments, such as when the two leads are standing by a puddle that reflects a rainbow. It is a simple shot, perhaps a little melodramatic, but the subtlety of the rest of the film allows it a pass on moments such as this. The film is perhaps a little drawn out, although the chaptering helps in breaking the story up into smaller, sometimes self-contained, stretches. The film was written by Shunji Iwai (under a pseudonym), along with Ami Sakurai and Miyuki Sato and both dialogue and plot are carefully constructed with a sense of realism to everything that happens.

Early on the theme of fate is established and the film itself plays on this through its plot structure. In knowing what will happen and witnessing the events with that knowledge, the audience is put in the unusual position of seeing things with the benefit of hindsight that the characters do not have. Kishida is criticised by his boss for not being able to alter the weather for the following day’s shoot, to which he replies that that would be impossible. His boss then retorts that he should at least look worried about it. This notion that there a things that will happen that we cannot change, that in fact we can only change our feelings about them is a powerful notion. Tragic events do occur and we can only look at them and decide how we feel about them. In the same way, Kishida cannot relive his time with Aoi, only look back on it with either love or regret. The second major message of the film is that of utilising your limited time wisely and taking advantage of every opportunity. There are several moments where Kishida has the chance to begin a serious relationship with Aoi, but always seems to back out. In contrast, when given the chance to move to America, Aoi takes it. They reflect each other in this regard, one hesitant and one bold enough to take their opportunities. The tragedy is that Kishida is doomed to miss his chance for true happiness, and that Aoi is doomed to take hers. The dualistic and contradictory nature of fate and free will is threaded throughout this story though never stated quite so boldly.

“Rainbow Song” is a subtle, nuanced look at relationships, that builds to a surprisingly devastating finale as we are taken through Kishida’s emotional recollections of the time he spent with Aoi and his series of missed chances. Worth a watch as a unique take on tragi-romantic drama.

37 Seconds (2019) by Hikari

Yuma (Mei Kayama) lives with her mother and works as a manga artist with a popular writer/artist Sayaka. She has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair, but this doesn’t affect her positive outlook despite repeated knockbacks. Sayaka seems to feel ashamed of her, not wishing her to take part in fan meeting events; their publisher seems wary of putting her in the limelight; and her mother (Misuzu Kanno), although kind, is stifling her sense of independence. Through it all Yuma puts on a brave face, but is clear that she wants more from life. When she finds a stash of pornographic manga dumped in a local park, she decides to contact the publisher looking for work. At an interview, she is told that her art is exceptional, but she clearly lacks sexual experience as her sex scenes are unrealistic. Yuma then sets out to gain more independence and have a sexual encounter, along the way making friends with a prostitute Mai (Makiko Watanabe) and the owner of a love hotel, Toshiya (Shunsuke Daito). Following an argument with her mother, she decides to set out and find out what happened to her father, who left shortly after her birth.

“37 Seconds” is a heart-breaking look at a young woman living with disability and all the issues that entails. Early in the film we see her difficulty in navigating steps and her home, having to be helped into the bath by her mother. Her treatment by Sayaka and others is never outright abusive, but represents a casual cruelty in the shame or dismissive attitudes to Yuma because of her condition. At heart it is a journey of self-discovery and by the end of the film there is an uplifting sense of hope built upon the sadness that has gone before. The first half of the film is almost a light sex comedy/drama about Yuma’s various attempts to have a sexual encounter, including hiring a male prostitute, visiting a sex shop, and later hiding her dildo and fancy underwear from her mother. The story then transitions into something more akin to a family drama, with her search for her father, and eventually meeting with her twin sister in Thailand. This is an interesting and important twist as it turns on its head the expectations of the first half: that sex will be the ultimate achievement; instead leading Yuma to the realization that there are more important things, such as family. She comes to understand through her various encounters that she is able to dictate her life for herself, that she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want just because people around her are asking her to do it. In fact, at the end of the movie she has not done what she set out to, instead creating her own unique manga vision and receiving praise for that.

Mei Kayama gives an incredible performance as Yuma, and we are completely carried along on her journey of self-discovery. The early scenes are difficult to watch as she is ignored or looked down upon, but it is heartening to see her blossom and gain the strength to stand up to those around her and set out to get what she wants. The supporting cast all to a terrific job, with Misuzu Kanno as her mother, Makiko Watanabe as the no-nonsense Mai, who teaches her important lessons about friendship and sex and the difference between them, and Shunsuke Daito as Toshiyama, whose kindness encourages Yuma to strike out for her independence. There is even a short cameo by Kiyohiko Shibukawa.

Written and directed by Hikari (Mitsuyo Miyazaki), the film explores the experience of a disabled person, with relevance to the treatment of disability in society at large. By giving us an insight into Yuma’s life it not only engenders compassion and understanding for their situation, but also a realisation of the commonality shared by them as human; their humour, sadness, happiness, sexual needs, and desire for friendship and family, are no different than anyone else, something that is sadly easy to forget for many people. The film is well directed and features a stunning cast. Definitely worth a watch as it shows themes of growing and gaining independence from a perspective that is not often seen on screen.

Harmonium (2016) by Koji Fukada

Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) is a man living a comfortable life with his wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and young daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa). He has a workshop at home where he manufactures parts. Out of the blue and old friend, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), turns up and enquires how he is doing. Yasaka is recently out of an 11 year jail term and Toshio agrees that he can work with him and stay with his family. Akie is not comfortable with this at first, but Yasaka soon shows himself to be a kind individual, teaching Hotaru the harmonium which she is practicing for an upcoming recital. Akie’s acceptance of Yasaka, and their own friendship, sees him confess to the murder that put him in jail for 11 years. Akie’s Protestantism means that she is keen to forgive him and believes that god is looking out for him.

The following synopsis contains spoilers.

“Harmonium” is a film of two halves. The first is a slow character study of Toshio, his family, and Yasaka. At almost exactly the halfway point we are hit with three sudden and shocking moments that come like a gut-punch and leave the audience reeling. None are entirely unexpected, but the nature of what happens colours the entire second act and makes us reassess everything that went before. Firstly, while on a family outing Yasaka moves to kiss Akie, their relationship has become closer, and the two begin an affair behind Toshio’s back. The second shock comes after a scene in which Yasaka is rejected by Akie. We see him leave the house and he spots Hotaru on her way home. In the next moment we find Yasaka over Hotaru’s body, blood seeping from her head. Toshio and Akie find their daughter and Yasaka walks away. As if this moment were not shocking enough, the film then cuts to 8 years later. Toshio and Akie are still living and working as before, Toshio has now taken on a new apprentice, Takashi (Taiga). We learn that Hotaru was not killed in the incident, but paralysed and left in a wheelchair and barely able to communicate. This tragic occurrence leads to soul-searching from both Akie and Toshio, who eventually reveals his own role in the murder Yasaka committed.

Written and directed by Koji Fukada, “Harmonium” is a film that relies on an excellent script, superb performances from the main cast and direction that leads the audience through the subtle build up and crushing twists without being overly ostentatious. It is a character driven narrative that looks at a brutal and tragic occurrence and the impact it has on people. It can be hard to comprehend exactly what the message of the film is on first watch, but it is something that will stay with you. There are two dialogues early in the film that may shed some light on the underlying themes of the film. The first is when Hotaru is discussing a spider she heard about whose prodigy eat their mother. She asks whether the mother will go to heaven. The father asks later whether the children will go to hell for eating her, finally reasoning that they will all go to hell because even the mother must have eaten her mother and so on. This notion of heaven and hell is raised in conjunction with Akie’s protestant faith and the film is in part an exploration of notions of sin and redemption. Both Toshio and Yasaka have sinned, but the film asks pointedly whether either can be redeemed. Religion is raised again in a conversation between Akie and Yasaka, when he asks her whether she is like the kitten or the monkey when it comes to god. The kitten, he explains, is carried along by the scruff of its neck, while baby monkeys cling to their mother themselves. He believes she is like the cat, carried along by god partly unwillingly, while she disagrees, stating she clings to god more like the monkey.

Every performance in the film is praiseworthy, especially that of Mariko Tsutsui as Akie, a woman who is struggling through the most difficult circumstances and in danger of losing her faith. Kanji Furutachi gives an excellent performance as Toshio, who we learn is an atheist. He appears to have completely shut himself off from the world, including his wife and child to a certain extent, perhaps through guilt or an attempt to suppress his personality. Tadanobu Asano is also excellent as Yakasa, whose mannerisms appear unnatural, but in a way that is hard to fully define. There are moments that can be genuinely chilling, as when he sees Hotaru for the first time, but always played subtly so you are never quite sure if you are just imagining it. In a way the film is provoking the audience into making judgements on him, in the same way many in society would when confronted with an ex-convict.

Fukada’s direction helps to tell the story, further strengthening the script and performances into something that is completely engrossing. As mentioned, the film is one of two halves in terms of the narrative structure. There also appears to be a shift in direction following the incident. Early in the film there are many static shots, and framing is largely flat, with characters facing one another across a table for instance. As the film moves to the second half we see a more active camera, off-kilter shots and the momentum seems to suggest a couple that is falling apart. Colour is also used to great effect, whether the white overalls of Yakasa, or the apparent switch in clothing of Akie and her daughter during a dream sequence later in the film. The minimalist score, that really only begins late in the film, helps to emphasise the final dramatic moments.

“Harmonium” is a difficult film to watch, with very dark themes about the most horrific of incidents. It is a film about how the past can come back to haunt you, and how people learn to live with their mistakes. We never discover what happened with Yasaka and Hotaru. Unlike a conventional crime story, the film is unconcerned about the details of the crime, but more interested in the impact it has on the survivors. The feelings of anguish suffered by Toshio and Akie come crashing together with their own feelings of guilt over what happened. The Japanese title of the film “Standing in the Abyss”, probably captures this sense of utter devastation and loss the best. They are two people who are living, but unable to move on or climb out of their personal hell. A film that is definitely worth the watch for the fantastic performances and heart-wrenching story.

Air Doll (2009) by Hirokazu Koreeda

Bae Doona stars in this modern fairytale about an inflatable sex doll that comes to life. This miracle prompts her go out into the world and explore. Nozomi, as the doll is named, is a wide-eyed innocent to the bizarre behaviours of the citizens of Tokyo. We are treated to several scenes of her attempting to follow what others are doing or understand what is going on that gives us a fresh perspective on the everyday. She stumbles across a DVD rental store, where she is employed as an assistant, forming a close friendship with the young man who works there. At nights she returns to her owner, assuming an inanimate aspect to perform her role as a sex toy. On her daytime perambulations she meets a number of lonely people, including an old man pondering his existence, a middle-aged receptionist trying to recapture her youth, and a young pervert who spies on her in the store. As days go by, Nozomi attempts to fathom some reason for her existence.

Bae Doona’s performance as Nozomi is perfect in its fragile naivete and childlike wonder at the world. Throughout the film we see her becoming more confident and her range of expressions growing as she begins to understand emotions. Comedian Itsuji Itao plays her owner as a comi-tragic figure. We learn a little about him through short scenes of him at work and at home with Nozomi. While it may be tempting to laugh at his situation, we come to see that he is not a bad person, in fact he shows kindness to the doll beyond its basic utility, but rather a man disillusioned with society and withdrawn into his own reality. The same is true of the other characters in the film who are variously struggling to integrate with society or form connections with other people. There is a late cameo from Joe Odagiri as the dollmaker, which provides an interesting moment for Nozomi as she is essentially meeting her Maker.

The screenplay by director Hirokazu Koreeda is based on the original manga by Yoshiie Goda. “Airdoll” is a film that has an intriguing premise. The Little Mermaid is mentioned during the film and is among others one of the key influences, particularly in Nozomi’s later relationship with Junichi (Arata Iura). She is the typical fish-out-of-water, attempting to fit in and find love, albeit with an adult twist. The film is a tough watch at times due to the relentlessly downbeat tone. The various side-characters all have something to say about modern society, whether that is about the focus on youth and beauty, the misunderstanding of the relationship between sex and love, or the search for meaning in an otherwise meaningless life. The film often feels that it is labouring the same point but in slightly different ways. That being said there are few genuinely shocking moments, where the film seems to completely jump the tracks. Not in terms of its own internal logic, but in terms of what an audience might expect. One of these comes near the end of the film and sees a sudden shift from humorous to horrifying. It is peculiar as it cuts across the mild melancholy of what has come before in a brutal way.

Pin Bing Lee’s cinematography takes us right into the world of Tokyo, with sweeping rooftop scenes showing the contradictory nature of the city as a place that is at once bustling yet without any real sense of soul. The opening sequence is a good example of the film’s visual storytelling with Itsuji Itao’s lonely figure sitting on a train travelling around the tracks, trapped in the monotonous daily grind. Likewise Bae Doona’s early experiences with the world that rely on her acute facial expressions and body language before she learns to converse fully with others. Katsuhiko Maeda’s score underlines the melancholic nature of the film, with plaintive piano and strings drifting along and the use of breathing on the soundtrack is a clever device, a nod to the protagonist’s tenuous existence and also creating the sense of the city itself as a living thing.

The film is certainly an interesting watch, with plenty to say about modern life. The depressing, nihilistic tone may be hard for some to swallow, but it is not without its enjoyable moments. Joe Odagiri’s characters asks Nozomi pointedly to tell him if there was anything good in the world, or was it all just one long trial. The audience is left to ponder this question throughout with the meaning of life seeming to always hover just out of reach of the characters. Surprisingly, the sexual politics of the film are left largely unaddressed, although the set-up leaves plenty of room for projection from the audience about the rights and wrongs of relationships. Rather than a personal study the film is best examined as a wider commentary on society. There has been a disconnect between sex and love in society that seems to be damaging the heart of humanity itself and leading to the sort of alienation we witness amongst the characters. A worthwhile watch with a superb central performance and a novel twist on an old idea.