Under the Stars (2020) by Tatsushi Omori

A young girl begins to question her parents belief in an unusual cult in this examination of faith and family. As Chihiro Hayashi suffered with terrible exczma as an infant, her father was recommended a miracle water, apparently imbued with cosmic energy. When they rub this on Chihiro she is cured of her painful skin condition. Now at primary school, Chihiro (Mana Ashida) and her parents are still part of this cult, drinking the ‘blessed’ water provided by the organization daily, while her parents are further involved in odd rituals of dousing themselves in water, and buying various products from the sect. Chihiro’s older sister (Aju Makita) is sceptical, refusing to completely follow their rules, and eventually distancing herself from them. However, despite the teasing of her friend Nabe (Ninon), and the concerns of her uncle Yuzo (Kohei Otomo), Chihiro is reluctant to leave her parents.

Based on the book by Natsuko Imamura, with a screenplay by director Tatsushi Omori, “Under the Stars” is a touching coming-of-age drama about an often overlooked problem: that of children growing up in religious households, unable to reject their parents beliefs. While Chihiro’s parents are not violent or abusive, in fact they are shown as loving and kind towards their daughter, they believe in a nonsensical placebo: something that is ridiculed by many around Chihiro. While their behaviour is bizarre to the audience, it appears perfectly natural to Chihiro, who has grown up surrounded by these beliefs. Mana Ashida gives a great performance as the young Chihiro, dealing with regular schoolgirl issues such as a crush on her teacher Minami (Masaki Okada) as well as the conflict between her parents, friends and extended family. She is well-adjusted in spite of her parents asking her to do strange things, such as wearing a pair of glasses to alter the way she sees the world; or drinking the expensive bottles of water in order to prevent illness. Masatoshi Nagase and Tomoyo Harada are also excellent as her loving yet misguided parents, playing straight-faced their adherence to the cult’s practices. They are sympathetic figures, especially as their entry to the cult was prompted by their daughter’s illness and seems well-intentioned in attempting to prevent harm to her and others. Chihiro is caught between two worlds, exemplified by her school friend Nabe, and Sanae (Ai Mikami), another child brought up in the cult. The film avoids sentimentality, with most of the responses to Chihiro’s family being confusion or mild amusement. Chihiro’s uncle Yuzo’s attempts to break them out of this mindset is one of the more emotionally raw moments, showing his distress at what has happened to his sister’s family.

“Under the Stars” ends on an ambiguous note, showing the ludicrous fiction that Chihiro’s parents are living, yet at the same time making clear their love for their daughter. This echoes the film’s central theme that good people can be easily manipulated by these groups. Minami teaches mathematics and science, suggesting that Chihiro is stuck between worlds of fact and fantasy, reality and religion. Having being misinformed her entire life, and slowly seeing the truth, she nevertheless clings to her parents and wants to please them. The film sheds light on the practice of cults making money off credulous and well-meaning individuals, while depicting the positive and negative aspects of piety, in Chihiro’s bond with her parents and their adherence to the organization. A powerful film about the tragedy of growing up in a cult, and the strength of human relationships and religious convictions.

Summer Wars (2009) by Mamoru Hosoda

OZ is a virtual online world where friends can gather and companies do business; connecting the global population in a vast virtual playground. As well as this it is also used for businesses, governments and other officials, forming a vital part of every aspect of human life. Kenji (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a high-school maths whizz (almost national champion at the maths Olympics) working as a low level system engineer on the site, when he is offered an unusual summer job by an attractive older girl, Natsuki (Nanami Sakuraba): to come home with her for the holidays. When he arrives at her home, he finds that he is to pretend to be her boyfriend for the duration of the trip, to please Natsuki’s ailing grandmother (Sumiko Fuji). Soon Natsuki’s whole family has arrived at the house, including the suspicious Wabisuke (Ayumu Saito) who left years before for America. While Kenji struggles to maintain his cover and befriend the numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, OZ is attacked. This act of cyber-terrorism has far-reaching consequences as industry computers go haywire and satellites are set on a collision course for earth. Kenji and the family around him must work together to prevent a global catastrophe.

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda from a screenplay by Satoko Okudera (the two also worked together on “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”, “Summer Wars” is an exciting blend of family drama and technological thriller, moving from scenes of the family at dinner to the virtual world of OZ, where avatars such as the semi-legendary King Kazuma, do battle. There is a lot of heart and comedy in the film, derived from situation and character rather than cheap gags, that makes you feel a strong connection with Natsuki’s family. Kenji is also a fun protagonist, completely out of his depth in social situations, but extremely competent with maths and computers. It is impressive to see such a large family portrayed and while we are not given much information about the members, the group scenes give a sense of the chaos of such gatherings, with them speaking over each other and numerous things going on around the table. The story throws in a lot of elements, and with this cast of characters it’s hard to get bored. OZ is an interesting portrayal of an online space, a sparse clean look populated by a variety of different avatars, although the actual workings of it are somewhat fantastical. The animation overall is excellent, with expressive character design and a detailed world. Akihiko Matsumoto’s score is entertaining, with a traditional countryside feel to the rural family home shifting to distinct digitalised tune for the online world.

“Summer Wars” offers an interesting take on the idea of a metaverse, a secondary online world which mimics and has become an integral part of human society. It points out the danger of putting everything in one space like this, with even the police and fire service working through the OZ system. The film’s central message concerns communication both online and offline, drawing a comparison between the online characters who can communicate in every language on the planet, and the more traditional family gathering. The primary importance of communication to human relations is a theme that the film drives home. The grandmother is able to rally numerous people to their cause through family and acquaintances, using the phone; while Natsuki is later supported by a large online community. The technology is simply a conduit for human connection, and should not be seen as a replacement for it. The central village being an AI also speaks to this idea that humanity must always remember themselves and what is important, rather than allowing technology to change our attitudes towards one another. If there is one complaint about the film it is that Kenji and Natsuki’s relationship is not really touched on much throughout, but there is so much going on that it is hardly surprising. An entertaining film that brings up a lot of ideas about how humans will relate to each other in online spaces and a warning not to forget that it is communication that builds strong societies.

My Little Sweet Pea (2013) by Keisuke Yoshida

Mugiko Koiwa (Maki Horikita) and her brother Norio (Ryuhei Matsuda) are surprised when their mother Saiko (Yo Kimiko), who left them years before, suddenly reappears in their life hoping to rebuild their strained relationship. Following a short illness, Saiko dies and Mugiko has to travel to her hometown to complete the burial procedure. While there Mugiko meets a number of people who knew Saiko and comes to reassess her mother and their relationship.

“My Little Sweet Pea” is a heartwarming and poignant family drama. Directed by Keisuke Yoshida from a screenply by Yoshida and Ryo Nishihara, the film looks at the relationship between a daughter and her estranged mother. At times the story feels a little uneven, beginning with Mugiko arriving at her mother’s hometown with her ashes and telling the first part in flashback, before later returning to the present and Mugiko’s interactions with the townsfolk, including Michiru (Yumi Aso) who offers her a place to stay. Where the film does excel is in its characters. Maki Horikita gives a moving performance as a young woman who feels let down by her mother, but who later comes to an understanding and even appreciation of her. Her frustration at her mother’s reappearance, unwittingly destroying her comic books and interrupting her anime viewing, will be familiar annoyances to many viewers. Acting as the perfect foil to her are Yo Kimiko as a mother awkwardly trying to make amends with her daughter, and Yumi Aso who acts as a surrogate parent to Mugiko and allows her to express herself indirectly to her deceased mother. Some of the most powerful scenes, at the crematorium and the graveyard, are devastating to watch, with a palpable sense of loss. The sense of community in this small rural town also comes across well in the film. Despite some difficult themes the film also has a lot of humour, such as the dangerously distracted taxi driver who knocks down a policeman near the beginning.

A film about a daughter coming to terms with the loss of her mother and reassessing their relationship. There is a believable tragedy in the fact that Mugiko never really knew her mother and therefore feels no desire to engage with her when they are reunited. Mugiko and Norio have both moved on, Norio perhaps more hurt than Mugiko, who has less of a memory of her mother. The message of the film is that children should cherish their parents, and try to forgive their mistakes, as it is too late to show affection when they are dead. We also see in the film the similarities between mother and daughter, with Mugiko dreaming of being a voice actor just as her mother dreamt of being an idol. An emotional and ultimately uplifting family film with some touching moments.

A Whisker Away (2020) by Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama

Miyo (Mirai Shida), also known as Muge,  is a middle-schooler who seems to have boundless energy, her bright and cheery disposition masking a disatisfaction with her life and past family issues. She lives with her father (Susumu Chiba) and his new partner (Ayako Kawasumi) after her mother (Sayaka Ohara) left them both when Miyo was in primary school. Miyo also has a huge crush on her classmate Kento Hinode (Natsuki Hanae), but is unable to express herself seriously to him. Hinode is also dealing with family issues, putting on a brave face to the world. He confides his feelings in a stray cat, who he names Taro after a dog that died. Unbeknownst to Hinode, Taro is actually Miyo, who acquired a magical mask allowing her to transform into a cat. Things become serious when the mysteirous cat mask-salesman (Koichi Yamadera) offers Miyo a choice between remaining as a cat or giving up the magical mask.

Directed by Junichi Sato and Tomotaka Shibayama, with a screenplay by Mari Okada, “A Whisker Away” is an enjoyable family film, with magic, romance, and relatable characters. There is a fairytale feel to the story, with the mysterious cat salesman, a simple yet difficult choice for the protagonist, and elements such as the hidden city of the cats. This fairytale atmosphere is also emphasised in Miyo’s literaly rose-tinted view of Hinode, the screen blushing pink when she sees him. While the story follows a traditional narrative, it also smuggles in tougher themes that will resonate with some viewers. The separation of Miyo’s parents, their bitterness towards each other and the impact it has on Miyo, are depicted honestly. The film also does not shy away from issues of mortality, with the mask salesman attempting to steal the longer lifespan of humans by offering the switch to life as a cat. It also does a great job with the two leads, Miyo and Hinode, being typical teenagers in their inability to express themselves openly, resorting to either an exaggerated ‘brave face’ persona, or turning inwards. The supporting cast, even smaller roles such as Hinode’s older sister, are all given something of a backstory and personality, helping to make them more than just window dressing.

The art, animation and elemental effects all create a tangible world that also seems to echo the characters emotional states. The warmth of the sun, the dampness of the rain, are all palpable, and the subtle environmental details create a believable setting. Even the magical world of the cats is presented in a realistic way (although it is hard to see how cats managed to construct walkways and cable cars). The score, by Mina Kubota, is perfect for the film, blending eerie mystery when the cat salesman appears with the sentimental, romanticism of Miyo and Hinode’s relationship. The traditional fantasy elements in a modern setting is something that is reflected in the music, with various instruments and styles contemplating both the contemporary romance or the older, more mysterious, magical moments.

“A Whisker Away” is a film that bolsters a familiar teen romance story with more difficult themes of dealing with loss. The separation of Miyo’s parents and her ostracization by classmates is upsetting to watch and gives a deeper understanding of her over-the-top clowning as an attempt to deal with it. The film works well for children and adults in that sense, with a magical romance for younger viewers, while older viewers will latch on to the difficulties in introducing children to new partners, or being a new parent to a child. There is also a strong theme of being able to express yourself that runs throughout, both in the story of the children and the adults. It contrasts the relaxed life of a cat, with that of humans, whose lives are filled with difficulties. The cat salesman offers Miyo an easy way out, but one that will not result in true happiness. In order to get what she wants, she must face up to people and the world. A hugely enjoyable family film with beautiful animation and a story that is engaging for viewers of all ages.

Lovely Little Ai (2021) Ono Candice Mana

Following her mother’s death, 16 year old Ai Shimizu (Akane Sakanoue) lives with her overbearing and overprotective father. He won’t allow her to wear skirts or short sleeves, go to parties, and has implemented a strict 6pm curfew. Ai is told to spend her time studying or reading, forgoing the usual fun extra-curricular life of a middle-schooler. When she bumps into the transgender Seiko (Hisao Kurozumi), she discovers a new world of fashion and make-up. Seiko becomes like a surrogate mother to Ai, teaching her to have fun and to be herself. Ai is also fending off the affections of a new classmate, Ryo Nagai (Ryo Matsumura), whose backwoods brusquness she finds offputting.

“Lovely Little Ai” is a fun comedy that is helped immensely by the charm and energy of its lead. Sakanoue’s expressive performance is engaging and entertaining and she acts not only as protagonist, but narrator and guide through the story, with several to-camera moments and her commentary on what is happening. Hisao Kurozumi’s Seiko is also a likeable character in her motherly affection for Ai and the two play well off each other, both comedically and dramatically. The character of Ryo seems somewhat out of place in the film, offering little to the story and being so bizarre in his mannerisms as to be almost distracting. It would have been better to focus more on Ai and Seiko’s relationship, which is the majority of the film, rather than have this extraneous subplot. While the film is for the most part a knockabout comedy, with Ai’s clumsy, forgetful nature providing plenty of humour, there are darker elements. The death of Ai’s mother, her difficult relationship with her father, and most prominently the homophobia faced by Seiko at the hands of their own father. This is an element that sometimes sits uncomfortably with the surrounding gags as we see flashes of Seiko’s past, being bullied and berated by their father for an interest in lipstick and fashion magazines. Again it would have been interesting to see some of these issues being made a bigger part of the story, as the scenes between Ai and Seiko, acting as daughter and surrogate mother are the most powerful. The film is brightly coloured, with kinetic direction, and a comedy score that underlines the silliness of much of the narrative. This makes the darker moments all the more poignant, but occasionally gives you whiplash with the rapidity it wishes you to suddenly engage emotionally with the characters.

“Lovely Little Ai” is a film about being yourself and standing up for your right to be who you want to be. Both Ai and Seiko suffer at the hands of conservative fathers, restricted in what they can do and who they can be. There is a subtext here of suffocating societal norms, not only gender roles but a reflection on modern families and moving away from the traditional family to a more positive, inclusive view of human relationships. Together Ai and Seiko form a bond that celebrates their freedom and individuality. Overall, the film is an enjoyable affair, helped by the charisma and chemistry of its leads, but it struggles a little in creating moments of genuine emotional reaction amidst the silliness. Standout performances from Akane Sakanoue and Hisao Kurozumi nevertheless make it a fun watch.