My Dad is a Heel Wrestler (2018) by Kyohei Fujimura

9-year old Shota (Kokoro Terada) is unaware of what his father Takashi (Hiroshi Tanahashi) does for a living, but he admires him for being strong and kind-hearted. One day he sneaks out of his house, climbing into the back of the family car to follow his dad to work. At first believing he is involved in some shady business, seeing him with two other burly men in an alley way exchanging greetings and cash, he soon discovers that his father is in fact a wrestler. As “Cockroach Mask” he plays the role of heel to the heroic wrestlers, such as “Dragon George” (Kazuchika Okada). Shota is shocked and disappointed that his father is a figure of hate, believed to be weak and untrustworthy by the crowd, constantly using underhand tactics in his fights, booed and reviled by the audience. Little does he know that his father was once the legendary wrestling champion Takashi Omura, whose career was cut short after suffering a knee injury. Shota must come to terms with his father’s new role, learning to love him even as the bad guy. Meanwhile, journalist and wrestling obsessive Michiko (Riisa Naka) is busy writing an article on Omura/ Cockroach Mask, for her magazine, after hearing that he is aiming to become the champion at an upcoming tournament.

“My Dad is a Heel Wrestler” is clearly aimed at a young audience. The plot is straightforward and for the most part we follow events from Shota’s perspective, occasionally seeing Takashi as he struggles with his rehabilitation and his role as the heel to more popular wrestlers. The story is premised on the idea that Shota does not understand the role of heel wrestlers, and would not be impressed that his dad is a wrestler of any kind. He may also be too young to fully understand that wrestling is a show as opposed to a genuine competition. Later in the film, Shota’s friend Mana (Maharu Nemoto) tells him that it is amazing enough that he is a wrestler at all, which had he been told that earlier would have saved him a lot of angst. That being said, if you leave your cynicism at the door, the film does have a lot to recommend it.

The young actors do a great job as Shota’s friends. Kokoro Terada is likeable as Shota and his upset at discovering his dad has a job where he appears to be disrespected is portrayed well. Maharu Nemoto is energetic and engaging as Shota’s wrestling fan classmate, Mana. Most of the young cast have little to do, but they all give solid performances that are enjoyable. One of the most entertaining characters in Riisa Naka’s Michiko, whose enthusiasm and infectious passion for the sport spills over each time she is on screen. One of the highlights of the film are the wrestling sequences themselves. Having a cast of real pro-wrestlers, Hiroshi Tanahashi, Kazuchika Okada, Ryusuke Taguchi, and Hirooki Goto among them, means that essentially these are full-on professional wrestling matches on screen. The athleticism and skill they bring to these scenes make them a joy to watch. In addition, Hiroshi Tanahashi does a fantastic job of portraying the family man and former champion Omura. His relationship with Shota is believable and genuinely moving.

At heart this is a film about the relationship between a father and son and learning to accept people for who they are and respect their dreams. Shota begins the film full of love for his father, his idealised image of the kind and tough figure he knows later shattered when he realises that everyone appears to hate him and he is acting like a bad guy. Tanahashi wants to do everything he can to earn the love of his son, who he clearly cares for a lot. He also wishes that he could return to his glory days, the heel wrestler gig being something of a comedown from his career highs. He accepts the position because his injury prevents him from returning as a face and his love of wrestling means he’s not willing to quit. There is also an interesting subtext to the film; one which is best articulated by Michiko who explains that wrestling needs both heels and faces. In society there are different roles to fill, not everyone can be the top, but they can play their part. This acceptance of a less than perfect situation and realising the importance of what you have (in this instance the love of a father or son) rather than striving for an impossible ideal is an important message. Overall, “My Dad is a Heel Wrestler” has enough there to keep you entertained, although it will perhaps appeal most to a younger audience or pro-wrestling fans.

37 Seconds (2019) by Hikari

Yuma (Mei Kayama) lives with her mother and works as a manga artist with a popular writer/artist Sayaka. She has cerebral palsy and is in a wheelchair, but this doesn’t affect her positive outlook despite repeated knockbacks. Sayaka seems to feel ashamed of her, not wishing her to take part in fan meeting events; their publisher seems wary of putting her in the limelight; and her mother (Misuzu Kanno), although kind, is stifling her sense of independence. Through it all Yuma puts on a brave face, but is clear that she wants more from life. When she finds a stash of pornographic manga dumped in a local park, she decides to contact the publisher looking for work. At an interview, she is told that her art is exceptional, but she clearly lacks sexual experience as her sex scenes are unrealistic. Yuma then sets out to gain more independence and have a sexual encounter, along the way making friends with a prostitute Mai (Makiko Watanabe) and the owner of a love hotel, Toshiya (Shunsuke Daito). Following an argument with her mother, she decides to set out and find out what happened to her father, who left shortly after her birth.

“37 Seconds” is a heart-breaking look at a young woman living with disability and all the issues that entails. Early in the film we see her difficulty in navigating steps and her home, having to be helped into the bath by her mother. Her treatment by Sayaka and others is never outright abusive, but represents a casual cruelty in the shame or dismissive attitudes to Yuma because of her condition. At heart it is a journey of self-discovery and by the end of the film there is an uplifting sense of hope built upon the sadness that has gone before. The first half of the film is almost a light sex comedy/drama about Yuma’s various attempts to have a sexual encounter, including hiring a male prostitute, visiting a sex shop, and later hiding her dildo and fancy underwear from her mother. The story then transitions into something more akin to a family drama, with her search for her father, and eventually meeting with her twin sister in Thailand. This is an interesting and important twist as it turns on its head the expectations of the first half: that sex will be the ultimate achievement; instead leading Yuma to the realization that there are more important things, such as family. She comes to understand through her various encounters that she is able to dictate her life for herself, that she doesn’t have to do anything she doesn’t want just because people around her are asking her to do it. In fact, at the end of the movie she has not done what she set out to, instead creating her own unique manga vision and receiving praise for that.

Mei Kayama gives an incredible performance as Yuma, and we are completely carried along on her journey of self-discovery. The early scenes are difficult to watch as she is ignored or looked down upon, but it is heartening to see her blossom and gain the strength to stand up to those around her and set out to get what she wants. The supporting cast all to a terrific job, with Misuzu Kanno as her mother, Makiko Watanabe as the no-nonsense Mai, who teaches her important lessons about friendship and sex and the difference between them, and Shunsuke Daito as Toshiyama, whose kindness encourages Yuma to strike out for her independence. There is even a short cameo by Kiyohiko Shibukawa.

Written and directed by Hikari (Mitsuyo Miyazaki), the film explores the experience of a disabled person, with relevance to the treatment of disability in society at large. By giving us an insight into Yuma’s life it not only engenders compassion and understanding for their situation, but also a realisation of the commonality shared by them as human; their humour, sadness, happiness, sexual needs, and desire for friendship and family, are no different than anyone else, something that is sadly easy to forget for many people. The film is well directed and features a stunning cast. Definitely worth a watch as it shows themes of growing and gaining independence from a perspective that is not often seen on screen.

Harmonium (2016) by Koji Fukada

Toshio (Kanji Furutachi) is a man living a comfortable life with his wife Akie (Mariko Tsutsui) and young daughter Hotaru (Momone Shinokawa). He has a workshop at home where he manufactures parts. Out of the blue and old friend, Yasaka (Tadanobu Asano), turns up and enquires how he is doing. Yasaka is recently out of an 11 year jail term and Toshio agrees that he can work with him and stay with his family. Akie is not comfortable with this at first, but Yasaka soon shows himself to be a kind individual, teaching Hotaru the harmonium which she is practicing for an upcoming recital. Akie’s acceptance of Yasaka, and their own friendship, sees him confess to the murder that put him in jail for 11 years. Akie’s Protestantism means that she is keen to forgive him and believes that god is looking out for him.

The following synopsis contains spoilers.

“Harmonium” is a film of two halves. The first is a slow character study of Toshio, his family, and Yasaka. At almost exactly the halfway point we are hit with three sudden and shocking moments that come like a gut-punch and leave the audience reeling. None are entirely unexpected, but the nature of what happens colours the entire second act and makes us reassess everything that went before. Firstly, while on a family outing Yasaka moves to kiss Akie, their relationship has become closer, and the two begin an affair behind Toshio’s back. The second shock comes after a scene in which Yasaka is rejected by Akie. We see him leave the house and he spots Hotaru on her way home. In the next moment we find Yasaka over Hotaru’s body, blood seeping from her head. Toshio and Akie find their daughter and Yasaka walks away. As if this moment were not shocking enough, the film then cuts to 8 years later. Toshio and Akie are still living and working as before, Toshio has now taken on a new apprentice, Takashi (Taiga). We learn that Hotaru was not killed in the incident, but paralysed and left in a wheelchair and barely able to communicate. This tragic occurrence leads to soul-searching from both Akie and Toshio, who eventually reveals his own role in the murder Yasaka committed.

Written and directed by Koji Fukada, “Harmonium” is a film that relies on an excellent script, superb performances from the main cast and direction that leads the audience through the subtle build up and crushing twists without being overly ostentatious. It is a character driven narrative that looks at a brutal and tragic occurrence and the impact it has on people. It can be hard to comprehend exactly what the message of the film is on first watch, but it is something that will stay with you. There are two dialogues early in the film that may shed some light on the underlying themes of the film. The first is when Hotaru is discussing a spider she heard about whose prodigy eat their mother. She asks whether the mother will go to heaven. The father asks later whether the children will go to hell for eating her, finally reasoning that they will all go to hell because even the mother must have eaten her mother and so on. This notion of heaven and hell is raised in conjunction with Akie’s protestant faith and the film is in part an exploration of notions of sin and redemption. Both Toshio and Yasaka have sinned, but the film asks pointedly whether either can be redeemed. Religion is raised again in a conversation between Akie and Yasaka, when he asks her whether she is like the kitten or the monkey when it comes to god. The kitten, he explains, is carried along by the scruff of its neck, while baby monkeys cling to their mother themselves. He believes she is like the cat, carried along by god partly unwillingly, while she disagrees, stating she clings to god more like the monkey.

Every performance in the film is praiseworthy, especially that of Mariko Tsutsui as Akie, a woman who is struggling through the most difficult circumstances and in danger of losing her faith. Kanji Furutachi gives an excellent performance as Toshio, who we learn is an atheist. He appears to have completely shut himself off from the world, including his wife and child to a certain extent, perhaps through guilt or an attempt to suppress his personality. Tadanobu Asano is also excellent as Yakasa, whose mannerisms appear unnatural, but in a way that is hard to fully define. There are moments that can be genuinely chilling, as when he sees Hotaru for the first time, but always played subtly so you are never quite sure if you are just imagining it. In a way the film is provoking the audience into making judgements on him, in the same way many in society would when confronted with an ex-convict.

Fukada’s direction helps to tell the story, further strengthening the script and performances into something that is completely engrossing. As mentioned, the film is one of two halves in terms of the narrative structure. There also appears to be a shift in direction following the incident. Early in the film there are many static shots, and framing is largely flat, with characters facing one another across a table for instance. As the film moves to the second half we see a more active camera, off-kilter shots and the momentum seems to suggest a couple that is falling apart. Colour is also used to great effect, whether the white overalls of Yakasa, or the apparent switch in clothing of Akie and her daughter during a dream sequence later in the film. The minimalist score, that really only begins late in the film, helps to emphasise the final dramatic moments.

“Harmonium” is a difficult film to watch, with very dark themes about the most horrific of incidents. It is a film about how the past can come back to haunt you, and how people learn to live with their mistakes. We never discover what happened with Yasaka and Hotaru. Unlike a conventional crime story, the film is unconcerned about the details of the crime, but more interested in the impact it has on the survivors. The feelings of anguish suffered by Toshio and Akie come crashing together with their own feelings of guilt over what happened. The Japanese title of the film “Standing in the Abyss”, probably captures this sense of utter devastation and loss the best. They are two people who are living, but unable to move on or climb out of their personal hell. A film that is definitely worth the watch for the fantastic performances and heart-wrenching story.

Another World (2019) by Junji Sakamoto

A trio of high-school friends are reunited when Eisuke (Hiroki Hasegawa), who has been posted with the Self Defence Forces, returns to their small home town. Koh (Goro Inagaki) is trying to make a living making charcoal, carrying on his father’s business, ignorant of his sons struggles with bullying, while Mitsuhiko (Kiyohiko Shibukawa) works with his own father at a second-hand car business.

Written and directed by Junji Sakamoto, “Another World” is an intimate portrait of a trio of men who have lost their way. An excellent central cast create a believable friendship between the three men who have drifted apart since their high-school days and are struggling to find purpose in their lives. There are also solid performances from all of the supporting cast, particularly Chizuru Ikewaki as Koh’s wife Hatsuno and Rairu Sugita as his son, Akira. The film’s story, for what it is, is a little meandering, largely concerned with showing how the characters relate to each other. There are a number of good scenes, between Koh and his son for example, or the three friends drinking together by the beach for old time’s sake. It shows what life is like in a small town and the difficulties of living there. Two of the friends have never moved away and seem to be trapped, one day much like the next and nothing to do but work and drink. As one of them says, he has never really taken any decisions for himself, taking on his father’s business and marrying someone after they became pregnant.

“Another World” is about the importance of friendship, while at the same time showing the need to find your own way in the world. The three characters are referred to as a triangle, each one supporting the other. The three are isolated in their own worlds, and only when they are together do we see the spark of something more in their lives. Without other people to support you, life can be difficult and meaningless. In the character of Koh, we see a man who is trapped by obligation, carrying on his father’s business partly out of spite at the way he was treated as a child. Eisuke seems to be suffering from PTSD following his experiences in the army, something his friends are unaware of, while Mitsuhiko (the most upbeat) is also dealing with his alcoholic father and running the family business. The film is a difficult watch, slow paced at times, but with some standout moments and performances it will appeal to fans of solid character-driven dramas.

My Father, the Bride (2019) by Momoko Fukuda

Toka (Honoka Matsumoto) travels home for the anniversary of her mother’s death. She is shocked to see her father Seiji (Itsuji Itao) in her mother’s dress, and more shocked to discover he plans to remarry with a man named Kazuo (Kenta Hamano) who he is living with. Kazuo also has a teenage daughter, Dari (Serena Motola) whose friend Taki (Yugo Mikawa) is dealing with his own issues of identity. Toka slowly grows to an understanding of her father and acceptance of his decision.

Written and directed by Momoko Fukuda, “My Father, the Bride” is a film about family relationships, particularly that between Toka and her father. The film is also about gender and sexuality, although it is chaste in its depiction of the relationship between Seiji and Kazuo. Honoka Matsumoto’s performance as Toka is great, showing her discomfort at what she discovers when she returns home and her growing acceptance of her father. The story of Daria and Taki also offers a great subplot, reflecting the same struggles for a younger generation, and Serena Motola and Yugo Mikawa offer some of the most emotionally charged moments and an excellent chemistry as firm high-school friends. Yugo Mikawa’s performance is one of the highlights of the film. The music, light jazz horn and piano and breathy flutes, and the cinematography of their beautiful island home all goes towards creating a comfortable feel. There is little real conflict or tension in the film, as with many stories on the subject of sexuality in Japan it prefers a softly-softly approach to its theme. The film uses the family dinner table as a main stage (the Japanese title “Delicious Family” gives an indication of the importance of food in the story). We see characters variously arranged around the table in relation to their situations, with Toka often sat across from her father, but later in the film sitting side by side as they make food together.

The film has a clear message about accepting gender differences. The relationship between Seiji and Kazuo seems a little underdeveloped. Perhaps this is to be expected as it is Toka’s story and told from her perspective. The audiences lack of knowledge about their relationship is perhaps intended to mirror that of our protagonist who has arrived in medias res. In contrast Taki’s journey is a powerful and necessary depiction of the struggles of young people coming to terms with their sexuality. The film is full of heart with some great comedic moments from Honoka Matsumoto and a standout performance by Yugo Mikawa. It rarely subverts expectations on a narrative level, but its charm shines through and it is an enjoyable family drama.