Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Set in Tokyo, in the lead up to New Year, the film follows three unlikely companions, Gin (Toru Emori), an alcoholic who has lost his wife and daughter, Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), a transvestite, and Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), a young girl who has run-away from her parents. These three homeless individuals become part of a bizarre tale when they find a baby left in a pile of rubbish. Full of unlikely coincidences, hilarity and tragedy, the film follows the trio as they attempt, by following clues left with the baby, to locate her parents.

Satoshi Kon’s third film and a departure from his other work in that this film has very few mind-bending sequences (there are a couple of surreal moments, reserved for flashbacks or dreams). The story could be described as straightforward, however the film is far from boring. Each character has their own demons to fight, or salvation to seek, and the film manages to perfectly weave the central plot through these various private stories, concluding them all satisfactorily. The animation is good throughout, but truly stunning in places with scenes of Tokyo at night, the snowfall that is present throughout, and an almost transcendental moment towards the end of the film of a sunrise. This blend of the everyday and the sublime, is replicated in the short haiku performed by Hana at times. It seems as though the film is asking you to take a look at the world, and see the beauty that is often missed when you are focused on your own life, or street level concerns; also to appreciate fortuitous occurrences rather that focus on misfortune.

This is at heart a feel-good New Year’s movie, centring on a common theme of family (and family reunions), with plenty of tear-jerking moments and lots of laughs throughout. However, the film also deals with some difficult societal problems, such as homelessness, the breakdown of family units, gambling, alcoholism, featuring characters such as transvestites, yakuza and gangs of unruly children. I found that the film had a cumulative effect. The opening scene shows the three protagonists at a Christian ceremony, which Gin seems particularly unmoved by, while Hana is willing to believe in ‘Christmas Miracles’. Throughout the film hope is always a faint glimmer in the distance (the hope that they’ll find the baby’s parents, and the hope they’ll find forgiveness, redemption or salvation). Each unbelievable lucky break might make you shake your head, but you find yourself slowly becoming more involved with these characters, and really willing them to succeed. When the film reaches its finale you are completely prepared to believe in some kind of divine providence.

Garden of Words (2013)

Takao Akizuki skips school each morning to go to Shinjuku Park. Here he meets a Yukari Yukino, an woman who is also shirking her job to sit alone drinking beer and eating chocolate. Takao dreams of becoming a shoemaker while Yukari has her own problems. As rainy season begins  the two sit together in a park shelter, discussing their lives and learning more about one another, forming an intimate friendship.

Writer and director Makoto Shinkai has an instantly recognizable style, with incredibly well-rendered locales and emphasis on the minute details that many would ignore, but which are of paramount importance in creating a sense of place and time. “Garden of Words” is no different in this regard and his depiction of Shinjuku and the park in the middle of the sprawling city is a joy to behold. It is a space that you could spend an eternity in, picking out each droplet of rain and marvelling at the reflections. The art, animation, sound design, and direction all work to build a tangible, living environment. The film is short but this works in its favour considering the story. Where many films would stretch the run time with unnecessary subplots, each scene in “Garden of Words” is poignant and essential in understanding the characters. There is a poetry in the script that compliments the beauty of the imagery.

Given the premise of the film, it would be understandable to expect a romantic drama. However, the film is far more subtle, painting a believable and touching vignette of these two characters who simply share time together, influencing each other in a quiet yet important way. In a world grown increasingly cold and isolating, this simple act of sharing a quiet moment becomes almost transcendent. The sublime visuals, and the mesmeric piano score by Daisuke Kashiwa that drifts effortlessly between melancholic and uplifting, create a space in which to contemplate your own thoughts along with the characters. “Garden of Words” is beyond film, it is a truly special piece of art, confident in its message and delicate in its delivery.

Kotoko (2011)

Kotoko is a woman suffering from a peculiar condition that makes her see two versions of people and is often attacked or threatened by the mysterious doppelgangers that appear. The only way she is able to stop these visions is by singing. She also self-harms, not to kill herself, as she explains, but to test if she is still allowed to live. Kotoko lives alone with her infant son, Daigoro, who is the only thing she cares for in the world, wearing a ring only to keep men away from her. Following a series of anxiety attacks and breakdowns, Kotoko’s son is taken from her to live with her sister in Okinawa. A man who catches sight of Kotoko singing on the bus decides to try and help her. He turns out to be a famous novelist Tanaka, and soon he is dragged into her inexplicable and destructive world.

Shinya Tsukamoto uses his creative directorial style to bring us inside the mind of a woman who is unhinged. From the opening scenes of duplicate people, the use of hand-held camera, off-kilter angles and constant movement gives an authentic sense of a disordered mind that few films covering mental illness manage to achieve. Tsukamoto is one of the few directors who makes the camera an integral part of his filmmaking. His belief in the power of the moving image itself to tell a story is also on display. The film opens with a girl dancing on a beach, the tumult of the waves behind, before being broken by a piercing scream. This is only one example of the vague, artistic way that much of the story is presented and lends itself to numerous interpretations of meaning. The film is straightforward in a narrative sense and largely does away with any semblance of plot or structure. Various things happen to Kotoko, but the heart of the film is an experiential collage of her instability. Her family, the author Tanaka, and Daigoro, are static points with which to contrast Kotoko’s own behaviour. The central performance by Cocco is mesmerising as she lets herself become fully immersed in the role. She is sympathetic if not relatable and as the film progresses we see a number of sides to her. Shinya Tsukamoto plays Tanaka as a somewhat naïve martyr to Kotoko’s darker impulses. His kindness in allowing Kotoko to vent her rage on him make for some of the most powerful scenes of the film.

The film hints at a childhood trauma that led Kotoko to her current mental state. The lack of an explicit cause helps the audience relate to Kotoko as we feel the same sense of alienation from that inciting incident. It is clear that she does not understand why she should be suffering this condition, and that unease and anxiety is presented to the viewer as fragmented memories and subtle references. Likewise, her seeing double can be seen as a metaphor for a psyche that has been split asunder by some unspeakable suffering. The film is not an easy watch, its difficult subject matter and experimental style may be off-putting for some. Without a conventional plot structure it can also feel stretched as it is never quite clear where everything is leading. However, fans of Shinya Tsukamoto’s other films will enjoy this as it is the director at his most creative with an incredible performance from the lead actress. The downbeat finale of the film gives an uneasy resolution to the story and almost prompts you to go back to look for clues in the drama to what happened, challenging you as the viewer to engage with the subject matter.

Radiance (2017)

Misako Ozaki (Ayame Misaki) works as a writer of audio-descriptions for films for the blind and partially sighted. She is working with a test group to write the script for a moving film about dementia and loss. One of the group, Masaya Nakamori (Masatoshi Nagase), was once a famous photographer who is now coming to terms with a  degenerative condition meaning the slow loss of his sight. The two have an uncomfortable relationship, with Masaya frustrated about his loss of sight, and Misako frustrated about her inability to convey the emotional content of the film in words. Slowly the two come to an understanding of one another.

Naomi Kawase writes and directs this touching drama on the subject of loss and understanding. It is great to see a film focussing on the issue of visual impairment and the film is in part about understanding those whose experiences are different from your own. The lead actors do a fantastic job with their characters. Ayame Misaki has a sharp edge beneath her kind-hearted exterior. Frustrated by her inability to accurately describe the film for her test group, and also suffering her own troubles with the slow deterioration of her mother’s dementia, Misako is a relatable and interesting protagonist. Masatoshi Nagase is also excellent as Nakamori. We can feel through his performance that this is a man who has lived a full life before losing his sight and is finding it hard to adjust. Both are somewhat prickly characters, understandably so, and this lack of sentimentality makes the film more enjoyable than a predictable romantic drama. The supporting cast, especially those playing the test subjects for the audio commentary do a great job. Oftentimes those with disabilities are used to gain sympathy, but here they are given time to share their feelings and, to some extent, speak on behalf of the blind community regarding their treatment in society. The only moment I found was undeserved was between Ozaki and Nakamori as they look out over a sunset. It seemed to come from nowhere, but even this can be read as a moment of exasperation rather than a romantic trope. Kawase’s script is lively and well-paced, moving between Misako and Masaya’s stories and using variations on the theme of loss and multiple perspectives to keep things interesting. The direction is intimate and beautiful at times, further emphasising exactly what Masaya has lost.

The film has a lot to say about how people perceive the world. In contrast to many portrayals, the blindness here acts not as a metaphor for ignorance, but rather gives us a gateway to a deeper level of perception. Misako comes to understand that it she is the one who is unable to see things clearly. Her group explain to her that some things, such as emotions, cannot and should not be explained. There are some things that simply cannot be described in words. This may seem obvious and cliched, but the film does a great job of showing this as well as explaining it. In a scene where Misako is walking around describing her actions we are made aware that this is not telling us everything. For example, it tells us nothing about what she is thinking, her emotional state, her history, her background. “Radiance” also acts as a commentary on film and art too, in Misako’s work and Masaya’s photographs. Art is a way for humans to make sense of the world and communicate with one another. It is necessarily imperfect, but it is one of the best ways we have of translating our inner lives to a medium where they can be appreciated, if not fully understood, by others.

The idea of loss is also a defining theme of the film. The loss of sight, the loss of a loved one, and the loss of memories or even of self through dementia. A constant refrain in the film refers to the unbelievable tragedy of something disappearing before you. Again, Kawase approaches the subject in an interesting way, using the visuals of burning photographs and layering the film with several different interpretations of this concept to make the point forcefully. A moving film that rises above simple sentimentality to tell a story that is powerful and timeless.

Street of Joy (1974)

Just before a change in the law is due to prohibit legal prostitution in Japan we follow a group of women working at a brothel. Kimiko (Meika Seri) is recently married and moving on from her life as a prostitute, though she later begins to have second thoughts about her decision. Shimako (Junko Miyashita) is besotted by one of her customers, a gangster to whom she gives all her earnings and who is abusive towards her. Naoko (Naomi Oka) is trying hard to beat the record of seeing 24 customers in a single day. As the film moves between the women and their co-workers, clients and others, we get an insight into their characters and a look at the sex industry in Japan.

The film is directed by Tatsumi Kumashiro, based on a novel by Ikko Shimizu, and shows a reverence for the characters, who are all portrayed sympathetically even if their motivations may be incomprehensible. The film is told in a somewhat erratic fashion, cutting between the various characters, with comic picture-book illustrations and title cards, snatches of exposition and enka songs inserted sporadically. Early in the film this can prove to be a barrier in getting any sense of a cohesive narrative, though later things do become clearer as the characters come into focus. This is partly down to the fantastic performances of the actresses, who embody their characters fully and give a sense of rounded individuals. Though the film does deal with sex it is rarely sordid, and in fact shows it to be as dull and commonplace as it must be for those in these professions. The women sell themselves in the same way that they would sell goods in any other shop and see little correlation between their self-worth and their product. This is a refreshing look at prostitution as it shows the world from their perspective. There is plenty of humour in the movie, with inebriated clients unable to perform and the peculiar trick of squatting over a stove to warm up for a customer. Though it does show certain dangers of the profession in Shimako’s abusive relationship, the film shies away from becoming overly serious. It might be more accurate to say it avoids sensationalism or exploitation, giving an even-handed appreciation of the issues involved.

Street of Joy is a peculiar film in a lot of ways. The storytelling and editing are more akin to a soap-opera than a cohesive film narrative. The various characters seem thrown together and it is hard to grasp any overarching theme or message for the film. However, it does offer a great insight into the operation of such establishments before prohibition. It casts an equivocal eye over prostitution and focusses on the women rather than the customers or those opposed to what they are doing. Too often sex workers are side-lined or used as titillation in films, particularly crime dramas, but here it is their stories that are being told. Kimiko’s dissatisfaction with her husband shows the importance of sex for women, while other characters express the equally important emotional needs. Sex is something that is of vital importance, while at the same time being as innocuous as any other function of life such as eating or sleeping. This nuanced approach makes the film an interesting watch and perhaps a good counterbalance to more extreme portrayals of sex work on screen.