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.

Lonely Glory (2022) by Keitaro Sakon

When she loses her job, a young woman moves back in with her siblings and attempts to sort out their lives for them. Haruka (Kokoro Morita) is a confident, forthright businesswoman, appointed as a leader at the counselling company she helped found. Due to her overbearing attitude, she is accused of workplace harrasment and asked to leave the firm by the CEO. When Haruka’s mother dies, her siblings are faced with difficult choices. Her eldest brother wants to continue running the small shop owned by their parents, while also pursuing a younger woman he wants to marry; her sister Miwako (Eriko Nakamura) is unhappy at having moved home after a divorce six years before, leaving behind a daughter; while Haruka’s younger brother, Takuji (Haya Nakazaki) is long-term unemployed. Haruka’s get-up-and-go attitude sees her clash with her siblings as she tries to force them to make tough decisions, pursue their romantic interests or start businesses of their own.

A fun take on the family drama, setting up a sibling rivalry and tension between the different world-views and characters of the four adult children. Writer-director Keitaro Sakon’s “Lonely Glory” tackles familiar problems among families, such as how to best carry on their parents legacy; dealing with relationship problems; lack of motivation; and different perspectives on how these issues should be addressed. Kokoro Morita gives a great central performance as Haruka, garnering sympathy in her attempts to help her family, while at the same time being brash and pushy, a black sheep in a family who would rather not disturb the status quo. There is a subtle tragedy in the background to the narrative, highlighted when the family give only cursory congratulations on learning it is Miwako’s birthday. It seems they are siblings who have little interest in each other’s lives, to the extent of not realising when one has a birthday. Keitaro Sakon’s direction captures the family dynamics in the way the characters seat themselves around their ramen shop; and the active camerawork helps bring us inside their lives.

Like a placid lake disrupted by a stone, Haruka’s return to the family fold sees their comfortable lives disturbed, with dramatic consequences. Haruka comes to have doubts about her businesslike approach to life, realising that she is overly demanding of others. She is constantly active and wanting to solve what she sees as problems, while the family are more bound by traditions of not rocking the boat. While Haruka’s actions largely lead to positive outcomes, we are left to wonder, along with Haruka, exactly what her own happiness would look like and why she has this restless energy to improve herself and those around her. This unique family story will resonate with people who have ever had a difference of opinion or approach with their siblings.

Call Me Chihiro (2023) by Rikiya Imaizumi

Chihiro (Kasumi Arimura) is a former sex-worker now employed at a street bento shop, where her previous profession makes her popular with their male clients. Being estranged from her own family, Chihiro’s upbeat demeanour leads to a series of friendships with people she meets. Firstly, an elderly homeless man whom she rescues from gang of children; a young boy Makoto (Tetta Shimada), whose single-mother is rarely home to care for him; Okaji (Hana Toyoshima), a schoolgirl who finds her formal family life stultifying and unsatisfactory. Chihiro’s older friendships include her surrogate mother Tae (Jun Fubuki), the blind wife of the bento shop owner who she is visiting in hospital; Basil (Van), a singer at a show pub; and her former boss (Lily Franky). Through these connections, Chihiro discovers the value of friendship and the true meaning of family.

Based on a manga by Hiroyuki Yasuda, “Call Me Chihiro” is a quiet character study of several lonely individuals, who stitch together for themselves a surrogate family, bound by their mutual feelings of isolation or abandonment. The cast do a wonderful job bringing these characters to life, with their nuanced stories all brought together by the central theme of loneliness. Kasumi Arimura’s Chihiro is burdened by her estrangement from her family, and unknown difficulties in her past, but putting a brave face on it. Her charisma masks a deep sadness and Arimura’s performance perfectly captures this shimmering surface hiding darker truths. The supporting cast are all exceptional, and a sequence late in the film when they enjoy a rooftop meal together brings home the extent to which they manage to build up genuine connection with each other and the audience. Rikiya Imaizumi’s relaxed direction, often framing the dialogues simply and allowing the actors to perform without distraction, helps build a sense of realism and emotional realism. The script grows organically from the interactions between the characters, slowly pulling together their stories and the similarities between them becoming evident as things progress. We don’t discover much about Chihiro’s past life, aside from a tense phone call with her brother regarding their mother’s death and a few flashbacks; similarly the script and performances succeed in giving lots of information about the characters without explicitly stating it (one example of this is in Okaji’s family dinner scenes, which show the relationships and attitudes of every member of the family through an everyday situation).

“Call Me Chihiro” explores the idea of social isolation, with many characters commenting on Chihiro’s loneliness. Despite her apparently being personable and making friends easily, she remains distant from those around her, struggling to make genuine connections. Food plays an important part in the film as a symbol of affection. Makoto’s hunger when he is locked out of his apartment; Okaji’s emotionless family meals; Chihiro’s enjoyment of solitary meals, all take on a deeper significance when considering the character’s need for love or lack of it. This link between food and love is well done, connecting together several of the stories without being an overly forced metaphor. The film also raises the idea of individuals as permanently isolated, suggesting that humans are aliens from diverse planets inhabiting similar physical forms. Only those lucky enough to find a soul from the same planet are able to find true companionship, with the rest doomed to live out a life in which they are never fully able to relate to others. You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family, is the central premise of the film, with Chihiro finally accepting her assumed name over her birth name Aya Furusawa, symbolising her determination to be the person she wants to be and to seek out meaningful relationships rather than societally obligated ones.

Leaving on the 15th Spring (2013) by Yasuhiro Yoshida

The Daito islands are a small archipelago hundreds of miles south-east of Okinawa. As the islands have no high-school, almost all 15 year olds leave the island to attend school on the main island. After her senior leaves, Yuna (Ayaka Miyoshi) becomes the eldest middle-schooler, due to depart the following spring. Her father, Toshiharu (Kaoru Kobayashi), lives on the island with her, along with her elder sister Mina (Saori Koide) and her sister’s child Mei. Her mother Akemi (Shinobu Atake) meanwhile lives on the main island, with speculation that she is estranged from her husband. Yuna is part of a folk-group, playing the traditional Shinsan instrument and singing, which gives her a unique insight into the cultural heritage of her island.

Writer-director Yasuhiro Yoshida was shown a 20-minutes documentary on the inhabitants of the Daito islands by his producer and tasked with making a film depicting their story. The film certainly succeeds in showing the beauty of the islands and the tranquility of the rustic lifestyle. We learn about the sugar-cane that grow, hear traditional songs, see the stunning vistas, glimpse the fishing and agricultural industries that predominate, and enjoy the seasonal festivals in a film that depicts a full year of island life. Throughout the film also keeps a firm focus on the emotional journey of Yuna and her family. While described as a romance, Yuna’s relationship with Kento, a boy from the north island, is only a small part of her journey, with the best part of the film concerning her relationship with her family. The central performance from Ayaka Miyoshi, who also learnt to play the Shinsan and sing in the traditional style, is a wonderful portrayal of a young woman learning to appreciate what is important in life. The supporting cast, in particular Kaoru Kobayashi as her father, also bring a great emotional depth to the story, showing both the enjoyable and difficult aspects of island life. The film’s mix of the traditional and modern sensibilities is highlighted in the score, which features a romantic backdrop of piano and strings, alongside poppy love songs and the folk-music that bookends the drama.

“Leaving on the 15th Spring” is a film that focusses on a particular community with a somewhat peculiar problem, that of young people needing to leave the island in their 15th year. However, it provides the perfect backdrop for a coming-of-age drama with relatable themes. Chief amongst these is the desire for independence clashing with a sense of familial responsibility. Yuna is excited to leave the small island, but fears cutting the ties with her father and sister. The distance between Minami Daito and the main island is emphasised in the relationship between Toshiharu and Akemi, whose relationship is of equal importance in the story. It brings to life the fragility of human connection, something we also see in Mina’s relationship with Mei’s father, which is also troubled. The distance between people, both geographically and emotionally, is at the heart of the film. It also questions the nature and importance of responsibility to our ancestors or our culture. The islanders are protective of their traditions, shown in a brief political scene in which the community council debate their opposition to the TPP agreement. Yuna also feels the weight of obligation to her father and family, wondering how to balance this with her own wishes to leave. The farewell festival that Yuna performs at is a poignant mix of melancholy at what we leave behind when we become adults, and the hope that we carry forward with us.