Drive my Car (2021) by Ryusuke Hamaguchi

Theatre director Yusuke Kafuku (Hidetoshi Nishijima) leads a seemingly ideal life with his loving wife Oto (Reika Kirishima), a popular television screenwriter. After returning home early following a cancelled flight, Yusuke finds his wife having sex with another man. He doesn’t confront her about this and when she dies shortly afterwards he is left with a deep sense of regret. A couple of years later Yusuke is hired to direct a production of Chekov’s “Uncle Vanya” in Hiroshima, a play in which he himself previously played the titular character. As specified by company policy Yusuke is assigned a driver to take him to and from the production company. The driver, Misaki Watari (Toko Miura), harbours her own secrets and the two contemplate their lives and past mistakes during their lengthy commutes.

Based on several Haruki Murakami short stories, with a screenplay by director Ryusuke Hamguchi and Takamasa Oe, “Drive my Car” is a contemplative drama dealing with themes of loss, regret, hope, and perseverance. Hamguchi directs at a gentle pace, allowing the performances to speak for themselves, with several long takes and scenes that unfold in a naturalistic way. The performances from Hidetoshi Nishijima and Toko Miura are understated yet intriguing, endlessly fascinating in their conversations and monologues and always leave the audience wanting to know more about them. The supporting cast are all similarly engaging, with nuanced backstories and characters of their own, particularly Lee Yoon-a (Park Yoo-rim), who communicates through sign language, and Koji Tatsuki (Masaki Okada), a young actor also grieving the death of Oto. The cinematography throughout mirrors these nuanced performances, capturing both the stunning scenery of Hiroshima and Hokkaido alongside more prosaic moments, and finding the charm in both. “Drive my Car” is a film that luxuriates in long scenes that give the audience a sense of the passage of time, with the viewer’s patience rewarded with truly heartfelt moments of revelation and realisation for the characters.

“Drive my Car” centers Chekov’s play with lengthy passages from the drama being recited or performed throughout. We often see Yusuke in his car reciting his lines to a recording of his wife performing the other role. There is a symmetry between the play and the film, particularly in the themes of regret and suffering; with Vanya feeling he has wasted his life, and Yusuke also feeling he wasted time with his wife through his feelings of betrayal. The film’s use of the play and of a multi-lingual, including sign language, cast and script, offers the perfect backdrop to explore ideas of meaning and communication, and whether it is ever possible to bridge the divide between individuals. The film looks at the idea of storytelling as a means to impart feeling and information, with Yusuke and Oto’s relationship largely revolving around them sharing story ideas to better understand one another. So much is said in the film, and yet also left unsaid, with questions left unanswered and mysteries left unsolved, much like in life. “Drive my Car” challenges us to look beyond what is said to uncover a deeper truth about reality and human nature. With its multiple layers, drama within drama, incredible peformances, and stunning cinematography, the film proves an enjoyable and throught-provoking experience.

Pure Japanese (2022) by Daishi Matsunaga

Daisuke Tateishi (Dean Fujioka) works on the ninja show at an Edo-themed amusement park. Although he is a skilled martial artist, he is relegated to doing the sound effects as it is believed he is traumatised following an incident at a previous job. When one of the cast members leaves, he is elevated to a performing position but his genuine swordfighting ability ruffles feathers with his co-workers. Meanwhile, elderly farmer Ryuzo Takada (Tetsu Watanabe) is being pressured to sell his land to greedy developers at the behest of politician Kurosaki (Tetsuya Bessho). Daisuke meets Ryuzo’s daughter Ayumi (Aju Makita) and agrees to help protect her from this unscrupulous gang, drawing himself into conflict with them.

“Pure Japanese” is directed by Daishi Matsunaga (Pieta in the Toilet) with a screenplay by Tatsuo Kobayashi. The plot of the film is straightforward, with greedy developers pressuring an unwilling elderly local into giving up their land. Daisuke’s story also is a familiar one of a young man overcoming past trauma. However, these story elements largely serve as hooks on which to hang the film’s main themes. Many plot elements remain unresolved and there is certainly no happy ending. Instead the film uses its characters and situations to challenge traditional notions of Japanese identity. The cinematography is exceptional, with stunning shots of mountains and rivers offering a timeless counterpoint to the human drama. The staging and lighting is also a joy, with carefully constructed shots that reflect both the real world and the fictional drama of the ninja performances, with the line between the two becoming blurred as the story progresses. The action sequence that takes place later in the film, playing on the hyper-stylised portrayals of samurai films is well shot and choreographed. This latter half of the film seems to diverge from the first half, but the two work well together in the context of the film by exemplifying some of the themes visually in the contrast of a more violent, fantastical ending following the human drama. The music echoes this theatrical style, with loud discordant chords playing over scenes of heightened emotion, and the drumbeats and percussion underscoring the fight sequence reminiscent of traditional stage performances.

The film uses its simple plot to explore the notion of national identity. Early in the film Daisuke is given a “Pure Japanese” kit that promises through a nose swab to tell and individual what percentage of their genetic makeup is Japanese. While most of his colleagues recieve around 60 to 80 percent, Daisuke performs the test by himself and claims to recieve 100 percent. Later in the film it is revealed that this kit is pseudo-scientific nonsense, and a discussion ensues as to what it means to be Japanese, whether in fact there is any genetic basis at all. We see Daisuke being bullied for singing English songs as a child; references to Yukio Mishima (a well known nationalist); the idea of globalisation versus traditional communities; and constant reference to the idea of a “Japanese” identity. Daisuke’s work at an Edo-themed park gives us an insight into the connection between the past and present and there is a sense in which Japan is unable to move on from its violent past; and perhaps even doomed to repeat it. In the character of Daisuke, a stand-in for the ‘true’ Japanese identity, we are given a conflicted character, capable of care and protecting the less fortunate, but also of violence and destruction.

The Lady Shogun and her Men (2010) by Fuminori Kaneko

In an alternate history of Japan’s feudal period, a disease known as the red-faced pox has killed three quarters of the male population. This matriarchal society is ruled over by a seven-year old female Shogun. Yunoshin Mizuno (Kazunari Ninomiya) leaves his poor family, and childhood friend Onobu (Maki Horikita), to become a member of the Shogun’s Inner Chamber, a harem of men who see to the ruler’s every need. As Mizuno becomes accustomed to this strange new world, guided by the higher ranked Matsushima (Hiroshi Tamaki) and Fujinami (Kuranosuke Sasaki), he also faces a rival in the shape of Tsuruoka (Tadayoshi Okura). When the child Shogun dies and is replaced by the older Yoshimune Ko Shibasaki), Mizuno also sees a chance to become her bedfellow, unaware of the danger that this entails.

With a screenplay by Natsuko Takahashi, based on Fumi Yoshinaga’s manga, and directed by Fuminori Kaneko,”The Lady Shogun and her Men” is a fun, ahistorical, drama that turns on its head the patriarchal structures of the period. Unfortunately, the film seems little interested in the satirical potential of this set-up, or examining the socio-political repercussions of the red-faced pox that has killed off a large percentage of men. Ironically for a film whose set-up suggests a role-reversal, with women being Shoguns, advisors, and filling all the major professions, the story remains remarkably andro-centric. Perhaps this is the point, with the casting of Ninomiya perhaps targetting a young female audience who might be interested in the mild homoerotic overtones of these male concubines. However, it seems that the premise really doesn’t change anything about the world. Where we might have expeceted a female led Shogunate to be very different, it appears identical with only the sexes switched. One of the major failings is the lack of a story, or at least one with any sense of development or achievement for the characters. The rivalry between Mizuno and Tsuruoka appears around the half way point and is resolved almost immediately. There are several story ideas here, none of which are fully developed: the death of the child Shogun and her replacement; the sudden reveal of the fate of the Shogun’s first sexual partner; all of these things are introduced with little foreshadowing. The pop-orchestral score makes an admirable attempt to prop up the lacklustre drama, but often seems to be doing a lot of heavy lifting for scenes in which the script has not really established any sense of threat. On the plus side, there are some good action sequences, and the sets, costumes, and large cast, do a good job with the period setting.

The premise has a lot of potential, with the idea of what a matriarchal society might have looked like, and the change in roles of men and women in this period. However, some of the story choices, and the mix of comedy, drama, and romance, make this female-dominated society merely window-dressing with little effect on what happens to the protagonists. The decision to focus the story on the male characters, seems strange, confining us to the Inner Chambers and thereby almost completley removing the women from the narrative. Perhaps this is the point, that Mizuno’s story is exactly the same as if he had been female and the Shogun male, but again it makes little sense to not contrast it with the real history. An interesting concept that is sadly wasted in this film.

Bitter Honey (2016) by Gakuryu Ishii

An aging writer (Ren Osugi) finds solace in his pet goldfish, anthropomorphised as a beautiful and flighty young woman in red (played by Fumi Nikaido). The two of them enjoy a curious relationship, with a frisson of sexual tension, and the goldfish, named Akako, also begins to explore the world on her own. Akako comes across a woman in white, named Lady Tamura (Yoko Maki), who she believes to be the ghost of a former lover of her master. The writer is also visited by the late author Ryunosuke Akutagawa (Kora Kengo), his literary rival. The writer’s flights of fancy slowly begin to consume him, perhaps as an escape from his recent terminal diagnosis as he nears his last days.

Based on a 1959 novel by Muro Saisei, with a screenplay by Takehiko Minato, “Bitter Honey” is a bizarre magical realist fable that draws no line between the real world and that of the imagination. The opening scene shows the writer and the woman in red together, he writing, her lounging, and aside from a few subtle hints in the score and dialogue it does not become clear that she is in fact a goldfish until the end of the scene. The film continues in this illogical, dream-like manner, treating Akako as a human, even to the point of her having conversations with others, while we know that she is a fish. The anthropomorphic nature of her character is incredibly powerful as the audience comes to care about Akako, her desires, her frustrations with the writer, and her relationship with other non-existent (in a real sense) people, such as Lady Tamura. Of course rationally both her and Lady Tamura can only exist in the imagination of the writer, something he alludes to later in the film, but it is still enjoyable to watch Nikaido’s performance as the bouncy, youthful goldfish, and it raises the question of free will and control in an interesting twist on a common trope in relationship dramas. The dance that Akako performs throughout is perfect in capturing the character of a goldfish, billowing tail and flowing movements. Ishii’s direction is excellent, staging the drama beautifully and, along with Norimichi Kasamatsu’s luxuriant cinematography, stunning set design and use of colour, emphasizing the sense of being lost in a fantastical dreamworld. Toshiyuki Mori’s score and the sound design perfectly compliment this stylish direction, humourous, melancholic, and with effects sounding like water droplets when Akako is on screen.

“Bitter Honey” has a surreal, folkloric atmopshere that is enjoyable to watch, helped by excellent performances by Ren Osugi and Fumi Nikaido. The plot is relatively thin and, much like in a dream, there are elements that don’t always connect perfectly with one another. The most obvious reading of what is happening is that the author, realising he does not have long left, is working on a story about his pet goldfish, imagining her as a young woman; while at the same time he reminisces about his relationship with fellow author Akutagawa and the mysterious Lady Tamura. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred by having Akako act independently, becoming a player in the drama in her own right. The relationship between the writer and Akako is genuinely moving, and the strongest element of the film, suggesting a lack of distinction between the real and the fantastical, or at least diminishing the importance of such a distinction. The film also comments on the struggles of the author, who always felt second best against the acclaimed Akutagawa, but for the most part it remains almost light-hearted as he enjoys an imaginary relationship with Akako. An entertaining magical-realist tale about an old man and his cherished pet goldfish.

Intolerance (2021) by Keisuke Yoshida

A father comes to terms with his daughter’s accidental death in this powerful examination of grief. When Kanon (Aoi Ito) is caught shoplifting at a local supermarket, she is chased down the street by the owner-manager Naoto (Tori Matsuzaka). After dashing out into the road Kanon is hit by a car and then a truck, killing her instantly. Kanon’s father Mitsuru (Arata Furuta) blames Naoto for his daughter’s death, believing rumours that he has a predilection for young girls and may have interfered with Kanon. Separated from his wife, Shoko (Tomoko Tabata), Kanon’s mother, Mitsuru has little support aside from his young co-worker. Naoto is supported through the difficult aftermath and public scruitiny by one of his colleagues Asako (Shinobu Terajima), who refuses to believe he is responsible.

“Intolerance”, written and directed by Keisuke Yoshida, is a rumination on the grieving process. The scene of Kanon’s death is depicted brutally and shockingly, although not overly graphic the audience experiences the sudden violence of the acccident. We are shown little before the accident, other than her uncomfortable relationship with her overbearing father. Mitsuru is a stern disciplinarian who has little interest in his daughter’s life before her sudden death. What unfolds after the action is a heart-wrenching portrayal of parental loss. Arata Furuta gives an astounding performance as Mitsuru, driven by anger against those he believes are responsible mixed with his own sense of regret that he showed little affection for his daughter when she was alive. A complex character, far from a perfect father-figure, he seems to want to make amends for past failures by lashing out at the world and placing the blame on others. Tori Matsuzaka’s Naoto is also overcome by a deep sense of shame, realising that he is in part responsible for the death and perhaps regretting his actions. “Intolerance” is shot in a down-to-earth, everyday style, with the supermarket and streets of the fishing town where it is set depicted without embellishment. It is a perfectly ordinary place, with ordinary people experiencing a tragic and extraordinary event in the death of this schoolgirl, showing the impact of this loss on those connected with Kanon.

As well as the utter despair and impotence that Mitsuru feels the film also touches on how such incidents are often manipulated by the media and how people who are not involved can effect public perception. Shortly after the accident the media descend on Naoto’s supermarket and Mitsuru’s home asking for interviews. And we see in short newsroom sequences, and social media, the public rapidly develop their own assessments of those involved and what happened free of facts or first-hand knowledge of these people or the emotional turmoil they are going through. The death of Kanon finally provokes Mitsuru to take an interest in his daughter’s life, interrogating her teachers about bullying concerns, accusing Naoto of lying about her shoplifting, and even reacting harshly to his ex-wife’s attempts to calm him. Mitsuru’s growing acceptance of what has happened and final feeling of connection with her is bitter-sweet as it comes with the realisation that he will never have a chance to express his affection for her. A touching film about loss and how its impact can change people.