The Guard from Underground (1992) by Kiyoshi Kurosawa

Akiko Narushima (Makiko Kuno) is on her way to a new job as an art appraiser at a large company. At the same time another new employee appears, the mysterious Fujimaru (Yutaka Matsuhige), to join the security guard team in the building. The towering, terrifying figure of Fujimaru soon begins a murderous rampage, killing off a fellow security guard and members of staff. Akiko finds herself in a fight for survival agains this killer on the loose and also battling the unwanted advances of her superior, Kurume (Ren Osugi), in this satirical slasher.

“The Guard from Underground”, directed by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and written by Kurosawa with Kunihiro Tomioka, is a typical horror film, with a satirical self-awareness of its inherent silliness. There is no explanation given for Fujimaru’s actions, other than a rather cryptic proclamation by him late in the film. Instead we have all the elements familiar to old-fashioned monster movies but with a modern twist. Instead of a monster we have the figure of Fujimaru, distorting the image of the helpful security man to a figure of terror and danger; the damsel-in-distress trope is similarly subverted in the resourceful Akiko, who proves more than a match for the men around her. Makiko Kuno is perfectly cast as the modern woman taking on not only sexism, but the hulking figure of a killer stalking the building. The ensemble cast do a great job with straight-faced performances providing just enough believability to the outrageous premise to maintain tension. Director Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s skill is evidenced here in the creation of shadowy, claustrophobic locales, transforming the familiarity of an office into something terrifying, with danger lurking around every corner. The music by Yuichi Kishino and Midori Funakoshi creates a sense of dread that seems purposefully to test the limits of parody, over-emphasising each scare. That is not to say that the film doesn’t have some great gory moments, such as a man being crushed to death in a locker, but they are made so outrageous as to be clearly intended to entertain rather than shock.

Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s “The Guard from Underground” is on the surface a slightly silly slasher film, but just under the surface there is a clever deconstruction of office politics. The film draws a direct comparision between the idea of a murderer on a killing spree with the far more common dangers faced by women in the workplace, sexism and sexual harrasment. The similtanous arrival of Akiko and Fujimaru speaks to this sense of certain threats being inescapable, or sadly just something she has to deal with as part of her job. A fun slasher film that displays the directors skill at creating atmosphere, “Guard from the Underground” bolsters its somewhat ridiculous premise with a thematic depth discussing sexual politics and more everyday dangers faced by working women.

My Little Sweet Pea (2013) by Keisuke Yoshida

Mugiko Koiwa (Maki Horikita) and her brother Norio (Ryuhei Matsuda) are surprised when their mother Saiko (Yo Kimiko), who left them years before, suddenly reappears in their life hoping to rebuild their strained relationship. Following a short illness, Saiko dies and Mugiko has to travel to her hometown to complete the burial procedure. While there Mugiko meets a number of people who knew Saiko and comes to reassess her mother and their relationship.

“My Little Sweet Pea” is a heartwarming and poignant family drama. Directed by Keisuke Yoshida from a screenply by Yoshida and Ryo Nishihara, the film looks at the relationship between a daughter and her estranged mother. At times the story feels a little uneven, beginning with Mugiko arriving at her mother’s hometown with her ashes and telling the first part in flashback, before later returning to the present and Mugiko’s interactions with the townsfolk, including Michiru (Yumi Aso) who offers her a place to stay. Where the film does excel is in its characters. Maki Horikita gives a moving performance as a young woman who feels let down by her mother, but who later comes to an understanding and even appreciation of her. Her frustration at her mother’s reappearance, unwittingly destroying her comic books and interrupting her anime viewing, will be familiar annoyances to many viewers. Acting as the perfect foil to her are Yo Kimiko as a mother awkwardly trying to make amends with her daughter, and Yumi Aso who acts as a surrogate parent to Mugiko and allows her to express herself indirectly to her deceased mother. Some of the most powerful scenes, at the crematorium and the graveyard, are devastating to watch, with a palpable sense of loss. The sense of community in this small rural town also comes across well in the film. Despite some difficult themes the film also has a lot of humour, such as the dangerously distracted taxi driver who knocks down a policeman near the beginning.

A film about a daughter coming to terms with the loss of her mother and reassessing their relationship. There is a believable tragedy in the fact that Mugiko never really knew her mother and therefore feels no desire to engage with her when they are reunited. Mugiko and Norio have both moved on, Norio perhaps more hurt than Mugiko, who has less of a memory of her mother. The message of the film is that children should cherish their parents, and try to forgive their mistakes, as it is too late to show affection when they are dead. We also see in the film the similarities between mother and daughter, with Mugiko dreaming of being a voice actor just as her mother dreamt of being an idol. An emotional and ultimately uplifting family film with some touching moments.

Lovely Little Ai (2021) Ono Candice Mana

Following her mother’s death, 16 year old Ai Shimizu (Akane Sakanoue) lives with her overbearing and overprotective father. He won’t allow her to wear skirts or short sleeves, go to parties, and has implemented a strict 6pm curfew. Ai is told to spend her time studying or reading, forgoing the usual fun extra-curricular life of a middle-schooler. When she bumps into the transgender Seiko (Hisao Kurozumi), she discovers a new world of fashion and make-up. Seiko becomes like a surrogate mother to Ai, teaching her to have fun and to be herself. Ai is also fending off the affections of a new classmate, Ryo Nagai (Ryo Matsumura), whose backwoods brusquness she finds offputting.

“Lovely Little Ai” is a fun comedy that is helped immensely by the charm and energy of its lead. Sakanoue’s expressive performance is engaging and entertaining and she acts not only as protagonist, but narrator and guide through the story, with several to-camera moments and her commentary on what is happening. Hisao Kurozumi’s Seiko is also a likeable character in her motherly affection for Ai and the two play well off each other, both comedically and dramatically. The character of Ryo seems somewhat out of place in the film, offering little to the story and being so bizarre in his mannerisms as to be almost distracting. It would have been better to focus more on Ai and Seiko’s relationship, which is the majority of the film, rather than have this extraneous subplot. While the film is for the most part a knockabout comedy, with Ai’s clumsy, forgetful nature providing plenty of humour, there are darker elements. The death of Ai’s mother, her difficult relationship with her father, and most prominently the homophobia faced by Seiko at the hands of their own father. This is an element that sometimes sits uncomfortably with the surrounding gags as we see flashes of Seiko’s past, being bullied and berated by their father for an interest in lipstick and fashion magazines. Again it would have been interesting to see some of these issues being made a bigger part of the story, as the scenes between Ai and Seiko, acting as daughter and surrogate mother are the most powerful. The film is brightly coloured, with kinetic direction, and a comedy score that underlines the silliness of much of the narrative. This makes the darker moments all the more poignant, but occasionally gives you whiplash with the rapidity it wishes you to suddenly engage emotionally with the characters.

“Lovely Little Ai” is a film about being yourself and standing up for your right to be who you want to be. Both Ai and Seiko suffer at the hands of conservative fathers, restricted in what they can do and who they can be. There is a subtext here of suffocating societal norms, not only gender roles but a reflection on modern families and moving away from the traditional family to a more positive, inclusive view of human relationships. Together Ai and Seiko form a bond that celebrates their freedom and individuality. Overall, the film is an enjoyable affair, helped by the charisma and chemistry of its leads, but it struggles a little in creating moments of genuine emotional reaction amidst the silliness. Standout performances from Akane Sakanoue and Hisao Kurozumi nevertheless make it a fun watch.

Scherzo (2021) by Takayoshi Shiokawa and Kanta Tomatsu

Koji (Takayoshi Shiokawa) forgets everything, waking up each morning with no memory of his previous life. In fact, Koji is only a name he has chosen for himself as he is unable to remember his past. When he meets Hinako (Meiko), who suffers with the same condition, the two set out to find a way to restore their memories. When we first meet Koji, he is living in a part-built apartment, without any walls, and only a matress, chair and television furnishing the empty space. His bearded, unkempt appearance is explained by his condition, as he forgets to shave, his lack of memory meaning he is never able to progress, essentially each day seeming to him like his first and last. He has only few connections with the world, including a love of baseball, and documents his life with a digital video camera. Hinako is also a lost soul, unable to root her existence in anything permanent, until her connection with Koji provides some form of comfort and solidity.

Based on a screenplay by Takayoshi Shiokawa, who also plays the lead Koji, “Scherzo” is a poignant character study of a man who has lost touch with society. We never find out the cause of Koji or Hinako’s memory loss, the facts of the condition being less important than what it tells us about the modern world. It is a simple, effective way to portray two people who are adrift in society, directionless, lacking any real emotional connection to the world or others in it. The film excels at telling this story visually, with Koji’s living space being a perfect example, or the poignant shots of him alone at various popular date spots. The lack of walls, the snatches of scrawled memos, and the striking image of the television and chair, are rich in metaphor, giving us a powerful emotional sense of his mental state without the need for exposition. The film does provide moments of humour, such as Koji’s trip to a bar without any means of paying, or the first morning Koji and Hinako wake up together with no memory of who or where they are. These lighter moments help to puncture some of the sombre, existential dread that characterises much of the film. The performances, by Takayoshi Shioyokawa as Koji and Meiko as Hinako, are excellent, and the two work well together. It would be hard to call this even an unconventional romance, as other than their shared condition the two seem a poor match; but their chemistry and naturalistic performances are engaging. Much of the film is concerned with memory making, Koji’s video recorder and Hinako’s polaroid camera both playing an important role in telling the story. The film draws us into their wold by having cuts with a stark blue screen of a video camera breaking up scenes, and often switching to Koji’s recordings, creating an uneven sense of time passing, as if we are only seeing brief glimpses of their lives. Many sequences are filmed in a guerrila, documentary like style, feeling like an authentic date diary between the leads, further helping build empathy and understandig with them. In keeping with the classical music-inspired title, the film features a piano score that lends depth to the film. Late in the film we see a series of documentary style vox-pops asking people if there is anyone they love in the world. By using these genuine responses the film deftly sidesteps sentimentalism in expressing its central theme, the importance of human connection and affection.

The meaning of “Scherzo” as a short musical composition is telling as the title of the film. Both Koji and Hinako are only able to live their lives in the moment, a fleeting experience that is untethered from both the past and the future. The use of the camera, as well as being a novel storytelling device, also serves a thematic purpose, showing the impermenance and fallibility of memory. When Hinako questions the difference between a memory and a recording, it is a thought that stays with the viewer and one that colours much of what happens throughout the film. A second important thread to the film is the primacy of recordings and media in society, and perhaps an obsession with looking back rather than living in the moment. The film begins with a stacatto, distorted video of Hinako singing in the rain and Koji can often be seen looking over photographs and video in an attempt to recall things that have happened. The camera serves as both a useful tool for him, but also distances him from his experiences. Everything he receives is second hand, he is forever looking back on events, unable to recapture the emotions connected with them. In the positioning of the television and chair in his living space we also see a warning to a society fixated on media, as opposed to looking out to the world around them and having genuine experiences. An engaging film that raises interesting questions with an interesting concept and two fantastic lead performances.

Poem (1972) by Akio Jissoji

Jun (Saburo Shinoda) is a young man working for the wealthy Moriyama family, serving them with a devotion that goes beyond duty, and rigidly dedicated to his daily routine (working from exactly 9 to 5 and patrolling the property at midnight). He lives with the younger Moriyama brother, Yasushi (Shin Kishida), who works as a lawyer, and his wife Natsuko (Eiko Yanami). Also resident are Moriyama’s assistant Wada (Ryo Tamura), and the maid Fujino (Hiroko Sakurai). When Moriyama’s brother Toru (Eishin Tono) arrives their lives are thrown into tumult as the brothers scheme to sell off the family’s forests, a plan that Jun is opposed to.

Written by Toshiro Ishida, and directed by Akio Jissoji, “Poem” returns to the black and white of “This Transient Life”. With the director’s creativity again on full display, this family drama adds thematic and emotional depth to its narrative of greed and selflessness. The story is relatively straightforward, leaving the esoteric, religious and philosophical of the previous “Buddhist Trilogy” films, for a story that focusses on human psychology, and critiques modern capitalist society and class structure. However, the apparent simplicity is nevertheless powerful if you take a closer look. Jun’s obsession with time-keeping, his fixation on repeating the same roles, his ascetic diet, offer a portrayal of a modern hermit, his lifestyle more akin to a monk than a houseboy. His peculiarities are further highlighted with his love of calligraphy, and his fascination with graveyards. It is not entirely clear why he feels this way, but the constrast with the materialistic Moriyama brothers is clear.

“Poem” is the final part of Akio Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy”, and continues several of the themes of those previous films. The central thrust of the narrative is the corrupting influence of modern society, the greed engendered by capitalism, and the exploitation of natural resources. Jun’s emotional plea for them not to destory the forest of their inheritance for a quick profit, that they conserve rather than obliterate the past, is both poignant and timeless. Where the previous films focussed on characters who were cynical about religion, Jun represents someone who lives his life in a monastic way, perhaps intending to achieve some form of perfection or immortality. His focus on calligraphy reflects Masao’s sculpture in “This Transient Life”, and the symbolism of the grave and death, considerations of an afterlife reflect the previous film’s discussions of this theme of our relationship with our own mortality. Similarly, we see eroticism and sex as a release, either in conflict with ideas of self-actualisation, or part of that process. The pessimism of those previous films is also evident here, as it suggests a modern generation set on a destructive course, obliterating the past, with a clear stance against the greed and short-sightedness of the brothers, the way they treat women, and their focus on their own reputations above any other concern. The final film in Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy”, “Poem” simplifies much of the nuance and complexity of previous films, instead providing a powerful polemic against commercialism and materialism, that is nevertheless in keeping with the previous films in questioning what is truly important in life.