Father of the Milky Way Railroad (2023) by Izuru Narushima

The life story of Kenji Miyazawa, whose work “Night on the Milky Way Railroad” has become a classic of children’s literature, is one full of tragedy, as recounted in this heartbreaking biopic. Born in 1890 to Masajiro (Koji Yakusho) and Ichi (Maki Sakai), young Kenji is afflicted with a disease at an early age. Out of love for his son, his father stays with him in the hospital until he recovers. After recieving an education, Kenji (Masaki Suda) has his head full of foreign literature, refusing to take on his father’s pawn shop business. After becoming involved in the Nichiren Buddhist sect, Kenji begins writing, honouring a promise to his sister Toshi (Nana Mori), who contracts tuberculosis. Toshi loved Kenji’s tales as a child, and took his words that he would be the Japanese Hans Christian Anderson to heart. Kenji begins writing for Toshi, who sadly passes away, and later for his father who promises to be his biggest fan.

Unusually for a biopic, “Father of the Milky Way Railroad” resigns Kenji Miyazawa largely to a supporting role. Although we follow him through the important moments in his life: his early illness, his dalliance with Nichiren Buddhism, his educating of local farmers in agricultural science, his numerous disagreements with his father; it is in fact Masajiro who is at the heart of the drama. Despite his pride in his son, Kenji’s often naive, petulant, behaviour leads to them squabbling and reconciling a number of times. It is a charming depiction of this father-son relationship, with spellbinding performances from Koji Yakusho and Masaki Suda. The love they have for one another; their frustration at each other’s outlook due to the generational divide; Masajiro’s pride in his son’s achievements; and Kenji’s constant desire for his father’s praise, are sure to resonate with parents and children alike. Based on a novel by Yoshinobu Kado, with a screenplay by Riko Sakaguchi, director Izuru Narushima crafts a film that has a picturebook quality at times, with stunning landscapes depicted and the stylish reconstruction of early 20th Century Japan appearing as something straight out of a historical novel. Moments of high drama are captured with hand-held camerawork that highlights the incredible performances, not only from Yakusho and Suda, but from Nana Mori as Toshi, and Min Tanaka as Kenji’s grandfather. The scene of Kenji’s grandfather’s senility is particularly moving. The film is packed with tragic moments yet manages to remain optimistic in its outlook, perhaps due to the postive worldview of Kenji himself, whose humble selflessness shines through.

A lovingly crafted biopic of this renowned author, “Father of the Milky Way Railroad” will appeal to fans of the writer, who will enjoy this depiction of Kenji Miyazawa’s life and the relationships he had with his family, particularly his father and sister. For those unfamiliar with Miyazawa’s work there is still plenty to enjoy here, from the incredible period sets and costumes to the beautiful score. The final scene is a fitting tribute to Miyazawa’s life and work that encapsulates the eternal optimism of the author.

The Lone Ume Tree (2021) by Kotaro Wajima

An elderly single-mother and her autistic adult son battle against local prejudices in this family drama. Tamako Yamada (Mariko Kaga) works as a fortune-teller while caring for her son Tadao (Muga Tsukaji), familiarly known as Chu-san, who has autism. When new neighours the Satomura’s move in next door, they come into conflict with the Yamada’s over a plum tree that is overhanging the path beside their house. Head of the house Shigeru (Ikkei Watanabe) has little sympathy for Tadao’s condition, while his wife Eiko (Yoko Moriguchi) and son Sota (Taiyo Saito), get to know and understand their neighours circumstances. Deciding that Tadao would benefit from more independence, Tamako decides to move him to a local group home for others with similar conditions; but this also raises concerns from the local population who feel threatened by the behaviour of the residents.

“The Lone Ume Tree”, written and directed by Kotaro Wajima, depicts the issues involved with raising autistic children and some of the negative reactions they provoke. Chu-san’s unusual interactions, never making eye-contact, responding in terse statements, doesn’t endear him to his neighbours and many of them seem unwilling to accommodate his behaviour, instead more concerned with their own lives or businesses. Comedian Muga Tsukaji does a good job as Chu-san, depicting his autism in a realistic way, but also showing the love he has for his mother which is often hard for him to display outwardly. Veteran actress Mariko Kaga is also perfectly cast as Tamako, an independent spirit whose energy and devotion to her son is inspiring. The supporting cast, including the neighbours, residents of the care home and locals give a great sense of a real community, with positive and negative responses to Chu-san showing the range of reactions to living with such conditions. Hiromitsu Ishikawa off-beat score is a great counterpart to the drama, representing Chu-san’s peculiar view of the world.

The plum tree of the title acts as a symbol of Chu-san’s own condition. We learn that it was planted by Chu-san’s father before he left Tamako and it has an almost symbiotic relationship with the character. Chu-san is distraught when someone comes to cut off the overhanging branches leading to it remaining as it is. While both the plum tree and Chu-san are seen as troublesome to their neighbours, they both represent life in all its awkward and uncompromising variety. The neighbours, at first distressed by the tree and Chu-san, learn to accept them as part of the environment. It is a novel way to express this notion that we should avoid antagonism and seek acceptance of things that may seem frustrating but are in fact the essence of humanity.

Mitsuko Delivers (2011) by Yuya Ishii

A 9-months pregnant woman returns to the street she used to live on, doing her best for the people around her. Mitsuko Hara (Riisa Naka) finds herself pregnant, single, unemployed and homeless. Following her whimsical philosophy that people are blown on the wind, she heads back to the street she once lived on with her parents. Her parents believe she is living a dream life in California. Mitsuko begins caring for the elderly landlady on the street and meets up with a childhood admirer Yoichi (Aoi Nakamura), who is still running a small restaurants with his uncle Jiro (Ryo Ishibashi).

The film has a relaxed pace that, with things only really getting any kind of impetus very late in proceedings. Risa Naka’s performance as the determined, permanently optimistic, Mitsuko is fantastic and carries the film. The supporting cast do an admirable job but the script often lacks enough humour or emotion for them to get their teeth into.

“Mitsuko Delivers” is a film about traditional values of community that have been largely forgotten in the modern day. The street of Mitsuko’s youth that she returns to represents this lost past of social cohesion and people knowing what they should do. It is chaotic and destitute but people all have a role to play and few worries despite their circumstances. As Mitsuko works for the community they in turn help her out. A film with an earnest and wholesome message about the value of community that is let down by a lacklustre script and meandering plot.

Two on the Edge (2021) by Yusuke Kitaguchi

“Two on the Edge” opens with a harrowing scene in which a young girl sits alone in a dark bathroom, singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to an absent mother. From the bruises on her face and the treatment of her by her mother’s partner it is clear that she is suffering neglect and abuse at the hands of these adults. Many years later, after fleeing home, this girl Otose (Meiri Asahina) is leaving her foster home and begins a job at a hotel, taken under the wing of senior housekeeper Abigail. Shortly after, Otose’s mother Yoko (Akie Namiki) reappears, asking for financial support from her daughter. Otose, happy to be reunited with her, tries to help, but wonders whether her mother has really changed. A subplot sees another mother-daughter relationship, as teen idol Yume (Maki Teraura) discovers she is pregnant and argues with her mother over her future.

Director Yusuke Kitaguchi creates a powerful emotional drama with “Two on the Edge”, dealing with difficult themes of child abuse and neglect, as well as self-harm. The screenplay, by Kitaguchi and Mahiro Yuki, never shows the physical abuse, but the tearful face of child actor playing the young Otose, and the cold-hearted way she is spoken to are hard to watch, suggesting the unseen horrors she is being subjected to. The performances of Meiri Asahina as the older Otose and Akie Namiki as her neglegent mother are exceptional, complex portrayals of women who are both burdened by their past experiences. The film further establishes Otose as a conflicted character by having a representation of her inner critic appear to chide and encourage her. This is well-handled in a film that is mostly down-to-earth realism, showing that she still yearns for her mother’s affection while understanding that she is being manipulated. Kitaguchi’s direction sees hand-held close-ups and incredible use of lighting, creating a dark, intimate portrait of these troubled individuals, and the melancholic score perfectly compliments the drama. The story of Yume and her mother (Kyoko Masago) is almost a counterbalance to the tragedy of the main plot, with their relationship being comparatively less problematic.

“Two on the Edge” deals with the aftermath of child neglect and abuse, as we see the impact it has had on Otose. She is deeply anxious to receive her mother’s love, or at least acknowledgement, but also enough of a realist to apprecaite what has happened to her. The film shows that this kind of abuse leaves a lifelong mark on those it affects. Her mother’s actions are despicable and inexcusable, but the film also hints at a troubled past for her, suggesting she may have suffered hard times in her youth, as she mentions her father losing the family business and drinking heavily as a teen. This notion that abuse can be multi-generational is portrayed well, neither absolving her guilt, nor making her entirely unsympathetic. A powerful drama about the often fraught relationships between mothers and daughters that questions whether forgiveness and redemption are possible in such circumstances.

Tang and Me (2022) by Miki Takahiro

Former pop-idol Kazunari Ninomiya plays an immature man who finds new purpose in life in this children’s science-fiction comedy. Ken (Ninomiya) spends his time playing video games instead of doing chores, frustrating his wife Emi (Hikari Mitsushima). When a robot appears behind his house, Ken believes he might be able to impress Emi by trading the robot by trading it for a more functional model. The robot, also voiced by Ninomiya, has no memory of where it is from and little apparent value, however Ken soon discovers that the robot may be highly sought after. He travels to meet robotic expert Rin (Nao Honda) and Tang is stolen by two shady individuals leading him to try to recover the robot and return it to the professor who built it.

“Tang and Me” is a children’s fantasy adventure based on the book “A Robot in the Garden” by Deborah Install. The story centers on the relationship between Ken and Tang with the slapstick comedy arising from Tang’s childlike naivete about the world pitched firmly at younger viewers. While the plot offers few surprises, Ninomiya does a good job as the hapless Ken, creating a believable relationship with Tang as the two embark on a road trip leading to him maturing as he learns to empathise with the robot. Hikari Mitsushima plays Ken’s long-suffering wife Emi, with a great supporting cast of comic and dramatic actors. The electro-pop and cheerful score provide a light aural accompaniement to the bright, colourful visuals. The future of “Tang and Me” is a utopia of clean streets, drone delivery, gaudy lightshows, and little in the way of threat. The surprisingly violent military application of robotics and Artificial Intelligence is necessitated by the plot, but the film is at pains to point out that this is done at the behest of foreign investors.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning are increasinly becoming an important part of human society. “Tang and Me” shows a world coddled by technology, with the humans facing few problems or dangers. They live in a state of childlike innocence about the world outside. Tang’s appearance forces Ken to face up to his responsibilities and learn compassion for others rather than continuing in his selfish ways. The film also has a strong message about the misuse of technology by humans, showing a scene in which fear causes the robot to brutally massacre both humans and machines, suggesting that the real danger is not the technology but the people who are programming it. Alongside the story of Tang as a surrogate child for Ken, this gives the film a little more depth and makes it an enjoyable all-ages science fiction fable.