Somebody’s Flowers (2021) by Yusuke Okuda

A sombre drama about loss and dementia. Takaaki’s (Shinsuke Kato) is left to look after his elderly parents after his brother Kento dies in a car accident. His father Tadayoshi (Choei Takahashi) has dementia, often wandering off, calling Takaaki by his brother’s name, and forgetting what he is doing; while his wife Machi (Kazuko Yoshiyuki) does her best to care for him. When a new family, the Kusumotos, move into their apartment block, tragedy strikes when the father is fatally injured by a falling flower pot, leaving his wife, Akari (Misa Wada), and young son, Sota (Ruse Ota), to cope with his loss. Takaaki begins to suspect that it may have been Tadayoshi who dropped the flower pot, although his father shows no signs of remembering the incident. Takaaki attempts to protect his father by lying and terminating the contract of his home helper, Satomi (Honoka Murakami), who is also suspicious.

Written and directed by Yusuke Okuda, based on personal experience of a family member with dementia, “Somebody’s Flowers” is an often touching and tragic drama that looks at a serious social issue. The depiction of Tadayoshi’s condition is sensitive while tackling the strain it puts on his wife and son. Choei Takahashi’s performance as the elderly Tadayoshi, with unsure steps, repetitive statements, and absent expression, capture the peculiar vulnerability of those suffering memory loss. The rest of the cast, Kazuko Yoshiyuki as his loving wife, and Takaaki as his morally conflicted son, whose feelings towards his father move from exasperation to concern, do a fantastic job creating a sense of a family unit doing their best to carry on after the death of Kento and the deteriorating condition of Tadayoshi. The film’s inciting incident, the death of Akari and Sota’s father and husband, gives the film a semblance of plot, but for the most part it is a more documentary-like exploration of these characters and their experiences. The scenes at the grief councelling group consolidate this documentary style as the participants give their thoughts on bereavement. “Somebody’s Flowers” leaves the audience to decide where they stand on the issues presented, particularly concerning the guilt of Tadayoshi, while creating scenes that brim with emotionality. The direction and framing heighten the impact of each scene, with an emphasis on character viewpoints guiding the audience through and offering varied perspectives on what has happened. The minimalist score breaks in rarely to set the scene, but never undermines the realism of the story. A scene late in the film, in which Tadayoshi believes he is talking to his lost son Kento, and encourages Takaaki to speak with his brother, is effecting in its simplicity and again succeeds on the strength of the main cast, capturing the complex emotions of the characters.

“Somebody’s Flowers” is a film in the vein of Koji Fukada’s “Harmonium”, dealing with a difficult social issue, with a story that doesn’t attempt to sensationalise or rationalise on behalf of the characters. We are presented with a situation that engenders sympathy for the protagonists, struggling with dementia and taking care of someone with the condition. It asks difficult questions about guilt, blame and responsibility, loyalty, loss and forgiveness. In the case of Tadayoshi he is incapable of taking responsibility for his actions, almost childlike in his innocence and unconscious of his own actions. In the survivor’s group we see people still struggling to forgive the perpetrators of the accidents that took their loved ones; while Takaaki must contemplate the possibility that his father is a murderer (albeit unwittingly). “Somebody’s Flowers” creates a powerful emotional drama about death and dementia that asks the audience to consider their own feelings on the issues it raises.

Bittersand (2021) by Tomoya Sugimoto

When scurrilous rumours are written about high-school student Eriko (Ayane Kinoshita), classmate Akito (Yuki Inoue) decides to take the blame. This seemingly frivolous decision leads to seven years of regret as Akito is unable to forget what happened following the incident. Now grown up, Akito’s friend, Yusuke (Riku Hagiwara), an amateur film-maker suggests using their high-school experiences as the focus of a documentary, and the two attend a reunion with plans of revealing all about what really happened.

“Bittersand”, requires suspension of disbelief that the rumours surrounding Eriko would have led to her total ostracisation and would still be relevant to the characters seven years later. Sadly, the moment of revelation is more likely to provoke a shrug rather than any sense of surprise. If something more serious than the juvenile relationship troubles and teenage pregnancy were the reason for the class still harbouring any interest in what happened, it could have been more impactful. The film itself even appears to acknowledge this with one fellow former-student laughing off Akito and Yusuke’s presentation and wondering why the others aren’t willing to simply get on with the reunion afterwards. The film misses a chance to focus on things that would be more interesting, such as why one characters physical appearance changes drastically, how one character managed to raise a child as a teen mother, or even giving us an insight into how the original incident affected the characters. The film is not all bad, with a mixed bag of performances, and some great direction. Perhaps the worst you could say about the film is that it is underwhelming; that it answers questions that the audience weren’t interested in asking.

One of the themes of “Bittersand” is how memories and experiences can linger and affect our later lives. Even something as seemingly insignificant as the events of Akito’s high-school years stay with him. The use of frequent flashbacks is an effective way to show this, emphasising the idea that past and present are inextricably interlinked, and our consciousness often drifts from one to the other without distinction. As discussed the film often misses out on exploring its most interesting elements. The ideas of infidelity, regret, the importance of the truth and the impact of malicious rumours, and the unreliability of memories, are left to wither on the vine. A fairly innocuous young adult melodrama that will appeal to people who like high-school gossip. The moment of exposure, with a criminal investigation style chart up on the blackboard is absurdly over-the-top, perhaps suggesting that the film is intentionally comedic.

Harmful Insect (2001) by Akihito Shiota

After her mother attempts suicide, schoolgirl Sachiko Kita (Aoi Miyazaki) begins skipping school, finding companionship with two homeless men in the neighbourhood. Her schoolfriend Natsuko (Yu Aoi) doesn’t give up on her, calling at her house every day before school. As well as her mother’s health, rumours also circulate concerning a relationship Sachiko had with her sixth-gradge teacher Mr. Ogata (Seichi Tanabe), with whom she remains in correspondence.

“Harmful Insect”, written by Yayoi Kiyono and directed by Akihiko Shiota, is a character-driven drama focussing on the peculiar circumstances of Sachiko’s life. The film is light on dialogue in a way that echoes Sachiko’s inability to express herself to those around her, including her mother and Natsuko. Most of her feelings are expressed in the letters to Ogata and his responses to her, but these are also often shrouded in metaphor. This lack of explicit answers leaves us desperate to learn more about the characters and attempting to piece together a cohesive picture from the hints we are given. The direction itself is a major key to solving many of the mysteries of Sachiko’s character, with often jarring cuts, the isolation of characters through framing, giving us an insight into how she perceives the world. Aoi Miyazaki’s Sachiko is a conflicted character, neither a traumatised youth nor a delinquent teen, her circumstances are troubling and yet she still has the fortitude to continue.

The film deals with several difficult themes, including suicide, sexual predators and rape, without moralising, instead providing an intresting character study that gives the audience time to consider what Sachiko is experiencing and how it might impact on her. Sachiko’s drawing books at random from a bookshelf; her letters to Ogata detailing dreams of a starless sky; her rebellious behaviour and her decisions to skip school and return, all provide subtle hints of a complex individual attempting to regain control in a life that has taken much of it from her.

Aristocrats (2020) by Yukiko Sode

Two women from different social classes become romantically involved with the same man in this feminist fable. Hanako Haibara (Mugi Kadowaki) is the daughter of a doctor whose recent separation from her fiance is met with disappointment by her family. Her friends and parents begin to set her up on a series of blind dates, one of which, arranged by her brother-in-law, is with the charming Koichiro Aoki (Kengo Kora). Hanako falls immediately for Koichiro and the two soon arrange to be married. However, she discovers that he is having an affair with a woman named Miki Tokioka (Kiko Mizuhara). Miki is from a working class family, but studied at the prestigious Keio University where she met Koichiro. Through a mutual aquaintance, Hanako and Miki meet one another to discuss what to do, a meeting that gives them both pause to think about their lives and how they have been impacted by Koichiro.

Based on Mariko Yamauchi’s novel, “Aristcrats” is almost two parallel films that play out with little overlap. The film is chaptered, with alternate chapters following Hanako and then Miki. The novel was serialised in a monthly magazine, and director Yukiko Sode allows the narrative to play out in an unhurried way that draws us into the lives of the two protagonists. The two women only meet twice in the whole film, for brief scenes, but this parallel structure allows us to contrast and compare their lives and choices. The cinematography gives a sense of wealth and luxury, with many high-class locations shown to best advantage, brightly lit with little movement reflecting the characters’ stiff social niceties. The classical score by Takuma Watanabe further emphasises this sense of an upper-class sensibility. The elegant surroundings of Hanako’s life, with expensive restaurants, jazz clubs, and summer retreats, are in stark contrast to the conditions of Miki’s life, her disorganized working-class home very different to the sterile environs of Hanako’s world. Mugi Kadowaki’s Hanako is a character who is trapped in a gilded cage, with few concerns about money; she is instead troubled by not living up to her family or husband’s expectations, her lack of a child, and perceived lateness in getting married. Both Kadowaki and Kiko Mizuhara give fantastic performances as women forced to follow social norms against their wills. The women are rarely confronted by serious problems, but the mundane, everyday sexism they face builds an incredible pressure that shapes the way they look at the world. Their friends, Itsuko and Rie, played by Shizuka Ishibashi and Rio Yamashita, are also interesting characters, representing women who are emancipated from the expectations of people around them. They offer a fun counter-point to the protagonists, being forthright in their determination to follow their own path in life rather than that set out for them by others.

“Aristocrats” offers an interesting look at the class divide in Japanese society, drawing a clear distinction between those fortunate enough to be born to wealthy families, living a life of afternoon teas and country homes; and those at the lower end of the income scale, who struggle for everything they have. Despite the difference in background, Hanako and Miki both face similar problems as women: the pressure to marry and have children, the expectation that they will submit themselves to their husband or partners will, and in short that they are there as little more than window dressing for the men around them (as Miki spells out to Itsuko during their conversation). Both women are trapped by circumstance, forced into societal obligations and unable to make their own decisions. Both have a friend who displays an alternative way of life. Hanako’s friend Itsuko is an independent woman, travelling the world playing violin, who shows little interest in settling down; while Miki’s friend Rie, dreams of starting her own business, and not being bound by the financial constraints that have bedevilled Miki. At heart the film is about finding freedom and making your own choices. It’s stark depiction of rigid morality seems out of place in the modern world, and the film’s commentary on these outdated beliefs provides a powerful indictment of the patriarchal system that persists in modern society. An enjoyable film with great central performances that depicts the reality for a lot of women while offering hope that things could be different and are perhaps changing, albeit slowly.

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.