My Neighbours the Yamadas (1999)

Nonoka is the youngest child of the Yamadas, an ordinary family living in Japan. She lives with her older brother, her mother and father, and her grandmother. The film is a series of vignettes showing their everyday interactions. In one of the early segments we see Nonoka being left at a supermarket by her family after she falls asleep, and their panicked attempts to find her again. Another shows attempts by the father to bond with his son. While they are not tied together by theme or an overarching plot, these segments give a full picture of family life that is sure to resonate with many people.

The film is based on a manga by Hisaichi Ishii with a screenplay by director Isao Takahata. The story feels very much like a serialised comic strip, with some scenes being no more than a single joke or reflection on family life. They  are punctuated by haiku which give a wry reflection on the behaviours of the characters, by creating a poetic image to symbolise the commonplace experiences. The animation is done in digital watercolours, that give the sense of a moving picture book. Similarly, the chaptered approach keeps things interesting. There is no real structure and the film is more akin to watching a series of shorts than a single narrative. The humour in the film is well-observed, relying on the family dynamics and characters. In particular, the bickering between husband and wife, the grandmother’s nonchalant rudeness, or Nonoka’s stoic acceptance of the bizarre situations she encounters. The script in this regard is excellent in reflecting everyday conversations between family members and different generations. There is also great use of fantasy sequences that are perhaps a reference to Nonoka’s understanding of events. The melodic piano score and bright visuals create a peaceful atmosphere that gives levity to any threat, such as the parents losing their daughter, or confronting a biker gang.

“My Neighbours the Yamadas” is a film that has a timeless quality, with eternally relevant subject matter, and an art style that is sure to be enjoyed for years to come. There is a poignancy to several scenes that manages to compliment the humour without becoming overbearing. This is a film that can be appreciated by different generations, with different experiences and perspectives colouring their response to the film. Children are sure to find humorous parallels to their own lives, while adults may share the parents’ frustrations at older relatives. Overall, the film is a joyful experience that manages to perfectly capture the family experience.

Her Love Boils Bathwater (2016)

Futaba Sachino (Rie Miyazawa) lives with her daughter Azumi (Hana Sugisaki). The bathhouse they used to run is now closed after her husband (Joe Odagiri) ‘vanished like steam’ a year ago. When Futaba is given a devastating diagnosis of terminal cancer she goes to find her former partner, who is now living alone with his daughter Ayuko. The two come to live with Futaba and Azumi and they re-open the bathhouse. With little time left Futaba endeavors to set her affairs in order, uncovering a family secret and making sure that the two girls are taken care of.

Written and directed by Ryota Nakano, “Her Love Boils Bathwater” is a poignant yet uplifting story about the value of kindness. There are as many moments to make you smile as to weep and it treads a delicate balance between sentimentality and realism. All of the characters are given a backstory, however small, and the script does a good job of weaving together various subplots into a coherent narrative. The entire cast do an admirable job of creating believable family dynamics. Rie Miyazawa is a caring and compassionate mother dealing with the shock of her sudden illness. Remaining strong for her children, while displaying an inner turmoil and sense of loss, the character of Futaba provokes real empathy and love for her determination. Hana Sugisaki shines as Azumi, dealing with her own problems at school and later taking on responsibilities for many of the other characters. She is a mirror to Miyazawa’s kindness and strong-willed nature, while also retaining an independent spirit. Out of all the characters she undergoes the greatest journey, from shy and awkward schoolgirl to a confident surrogate mother to her family. The rest of the cast are all excellent, particularly Aoi Ito as Ayuko, who does an incredible job with very emotionally challenging material. The direction of the film is good, allowing the actor’s performances to shine. There is interesting use of cut-aways, to the chimney of the bathhouse, which may also resemble a crematorium chimney, or blue skies with clouds floating by. Discussion of the afterlife in the film is minimal, largely revolving around one young character whose mother is deceased. Religious notions are largely superceded, explicitly at the end, by a more humanist philosophy amongst the characters, that the reality of everyday love and joy is something that should be cherished over a belief in heaven.

“Her Love Boils Bathwater” is a moving portrait about life and family set against the backdrop of an imminent death. This prognosis early in the film sets everything in context for the audience, although certain characters remain unaware of it until later. However, it is not a film that dwells on death so much as an examination of the joy of life. Although there are powerfully emotional scenes, there is also a lot of subtle humour and tender moments between mother and daughter or the two sisters that emphasize the idea that life is precious and each moment has the potential for joy. The film features several characters who are without a mother, though cared for by other characters. The importance of parental affection from those other than the biological parents is an important theme. This is generalized more widely into the notion of the paramount importance of kindness in society. Futaba’s relations with everyone she meets are typified by this more than anything, her ability to forgive, and her resolve to keep going through adversity. In the final section of the film we see this kindness repaid by those she has touched. An emotional film that is a celebration of the best of human nature, a plea for kindness in a world of misfortune.

Tokyo Godfathers (2003)

Set in Tokyo, in the lead up to New Year, the film follows three unlikely companions, Gin (Toru Emori), an alcoholic who has lost his wife and daughter, Hana (Yoshiaki Umegaki), a transvestite, and Miyuki (Aya Okamoto), a young girl who has run-away from her parents. These three homeless individuals become part of a bizarre tale when they find a baby left in a pile of rubbish. Full of unlikely coincidences, hilarity and tragedy, the film follows the trio as they attempt, by following clues left with the baby, to locate her parents.

Satoshi Kon’s third film and a departure from his other work in that this film has very few mind-bending sequences (there are a couple of surreal moments, reserved for flashbacks or dreams). The story could be described as straightforward, however the film is far from boring. Each character has their own demons to fight, or salvation to seek, and the film manages to perfectly weave the central plot through these various private stories, concluding them all satisfactorily. The animation is good throughout, but truly stunning in places with scenes of Tokyo at night, the snowfall that is present throughout, and an almost transcendental moment towards the end of the film of a sunrise. This blend of the everyday and the sublime, is replicated in the short haiku performed by Hana at times. It seems as though the film is asking you to take a look at the world, and see the beauty that is often missed when you are focused on your own life, or street level concerns; also to appreciate fortuitous occurrences rather that focus on misfortune.

This is at heart a feel-good New Year’s movie, centring on a common theme of family (and family reunions), with plenty of tear-jerking moments and lots of laughs throughout. However, the film also deals with some difficult societal problems, such as homelessness, the breakdown of family units, gambling, alcoholism, featuring characters such as transvestites, yakuza and gangs of unruly children. I found that the film had a cumulative effect. The opening scene shows the three protagonists at a Christian ceremony, which Gin seems particularly unmoved by, while Hana is willing to believe in ‘Christmas Miracles’. Throughout the film hope is always a faint glimmer in the distance (the hope that they’ll find the baby’s parents, and the hope they’ll find forgiveness, redemption or salvation). Each unbelievable lucky break might make you shake your head, but you find yourself slowly becoming more involved with these characters, and really willing them to succeed. When the film reaches its finale you are completely prepared to believe in some kind of divine providence.

Love and Peace (2015)

Ryoichi Suzuki (Hiroki Hasegawa), a lowly office clerk, dreams of becoming a rock star and reliving the successes of his younger years. He also has romantic inclinations towards his co-worker Yuko Terashima (Kumiko Aso). One day at lunch he buys a small pet turtle which he takes back to his apartment, sharing with it his hopes and ambitions and naming it ‘Pikadon’. After being bullied for having the turtle at work, Ryoichi flushes it down the toilet. The film then splits into two stories: one following Ryoichi on his journey to musical greatness via series of unlikely chance encounters; the other following Pikadon as he finds his way to a homeless man (Toshiyuki Nishida) in the sewers, who has collected a group of talking toys and animals to him.

Written and directed by prolific film-maker Sion Sono, this film has the expected blend of hilarity, tragedy and all-out insane spectacle. “Love and Peace” always seems to be heading in one direction and then quickly takes you somewhere unexpected. The finale of the film is a spectacle that is utterly ridiculous, but entirely in keeping with the anarchic sensibilities of the rest of the film. The split narrative of Ryoichi and Pikadon gives an interesting flavour to the film, showing the darker side of society’s relentless obsession with fame to the detriment of compassion and care. The abandoned toys in the sewers serve as a poignant reminder that consumerism often leads to a selfish mindset that neglects anything seen as old or worthless. The acting is great, particularly from Hiroki Hasegawa, who does a fantastic job portraying the put-upon Ryochi, bullied and unable to achieve his dreams, and later his rock-star alter-ego “Wild Ryo”, boastful and comfortable with the adoration of large crowds. Also great is Toshiyuki Nishida, who plays the homeless man to whom all the lost toys manage to find their way. His portrayal of the kindly drunk is one of the most touching parts of the film. The music consists largely of two songs: Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy”, and the constant refrain of Ryoichi’s big hit “Love and Peace”, which you may find yourself humming throughout.

The main theme of the film concerns Ryoichi’s search for fame and how this leads to him abandoning those things that are truly important. It is far from subtle in the transformation of this retiring office worker into an arrogant rock star and likewise in showing the effects of his selfish actions. There is also the complimentary story of the toys, who find themselves abandoned and unloved once Christmas is forgotten (a metaphor for the fickle nature of celebrity and a pointed statement on the consumerism of the season). I would highly recommend this for the unexpected laughs, the bizarreness of the concept, and for some genuinely moving moments involving the homeless man and the toys.

Our Little Sister (2015)

Sochi, Yoshino and Chika are three sisters who live together in a large house in a seaside town. Abandoned by their father 15 years ago after an affair, they have settled into a relaxed existence, when news of their father’s death and impending funeral reach them. On attending the funeral they meet their younger half sister, Suzu, for the first time and invite her to live with them. Suzu decides to move town and live in their house, beginning a new school and new life with her older sisters. The story shows us a little of each of their lives and how they work together to support each other.

Written and directed by Hirokazu Koreeda (I Wish) the film moves at a relaxed pace with a sense of realism, shying away from melodrama, as we see the everyday trials of the sisters. Their interactions seem perfectly natural, helped by the fantastic acting of all the leads and supporting cast, Haruka Ayase, Masami Nagasawa, Suzu Hirose and Kaho. The characters are all likeable with distinct personalities. Rather than watching a standard plot unfold, instead it feels as though we are simply spending time with them, as we see them cooking, eating, working or at school, and it is intriguing to see what happens. Each character is given their own arc and the film is paced to give everyone just enough time to develop. The direction is likewise calm and measured, with beautifully composed shots, and the fantastic settings, such as the old house and the seaside town, used to full effect in capturing a sense of place.

A subtle examination of family life and sisterly affection. Amazing direction and acting make this an enjoyable experience.