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.

This Transient Life (1970) by Akio Jissoji

Siblings begin an illicit, incestuous affair in this erotic drama touching on lust and faith from Akio Jissoji. 21-year old Masao Hino (Ryo Tamura) is a disappointment to his father, neither attending university or wishing to follow him into the family business. His friend, priest Ogino (Haruhiko Okamura), introduces him to Master Mori (Eiji Okada), who is hard at work carving a statue of Kanon, goddess of harmony, for his temple. While their parents are away Masao begins a sexual relationship with his 25-year old sister Yuri (Michiko Tsukasa). In order to keep this secret from their parents he tells her she must marry Iwashita (Kotobuki Hananomoto), their groundskeeper. Masao moves away to become an apprentice to Master Mori, later beginning an affair with Mori’s wife, Reiko (Mitsuko Tanaka).

Akio Jissoji’s “This Transient Life”, from a script by Toshiro Ishido, is a beautifully artistic film, displaying its creativity in every frame and scene; fluid direction is used to create a sense of life and vibrancy. A striking example of this is in the scene where the camera snakes its way through the Hino home, following Masao and Yuri, becoming voyeur documentarist while capturing an emotionality and physicality that draws the audience into the moment. The cinematography likewise creates stunning shots that seem full of metaphor and meaning, with angles emphasizing elements of the setting, such as the immovable stones of the temple or the ranks of statues that stand silent watch. These alongside the extreme close-ups help draw a distinction between the living and the dead, the transient and the eternal, in keeping with the themes of the film. The music by Toru Fuyuki is also used in an descriptive capacity, with sudden stings emphasising characters coming to stark, often shocking, realisations. Underlying all of this cinematic inventiveness is a story that harks back to ancient tragedies, drawing in timeless themes of sex, lust and faith. As with the chiaroscuro lighting, the choices faced by the characters are often stark, though their apparent simplicity belies a cauldron of roiling passions and competing desires. Aside from the sex scenes, the action is surprisingly static, with characters often lost in self-reflection or in discussion with others. The real action here is on an emotional and philosophical level, and the actors do a fantastic job with the nuanced portrayals of these characters, striving towards higher purpose in an apparently godless world.

“This Transient Life” is the first of Jissoji’s “Buddhist Trilogy”, though you do not need to be a scholar of the religion to appreciate the themes expressed. They are universal and timeless, a conflict between base human desire and a quest for something more, something transcendent or spiritual, that people have striven for throughout history. Masao is a man who appears to have no morality. As he explains to Ogino the priest, his lack of belief in heaven and hell leads him to act as he will, unconstrained by human law. At several points throughout the film he asks questions of Mori and Ogino that shake their faith. He is a rogue element in a society that is strictly conditioned to follow the precepts set down by religious orders, in this case Buddhist ideals and the notion of a correct or just path. His lust for his sister is a sin that cannot be countenanced by his friend, but in his worldview, the fact that he has the capacity and will to commit such an act seems at odds with any divine plan for humanity. Masao and Ogino have a tete-a-tete in which his troubling philosophy is offered up to the monk, who rejects it, but not without being shocked by its potential truthfulness. The ambiguous nature of the film, in particular the shocking ending, allows the audience to make up their own mind about both faith and morality. A stunning film that illustrates a deeply controversial and thought-provoking story with supreme artistry.

Airport 2013 (2013) by Koki Mitani

When there is a transfer flight delay, a put-upon ground staff worker at a small town airport has to deal with a family that has plenty of problems of their own. We meet Okouchi (Yuko Takeuchi) as her manager, Muraki (Masahiro Komoto), is explaining that bad weather means a connecting flight from Saga to Tokyo will be delayed at their small airport in Matsumoto. This manager also makes her a marriage proposal, an offer Okouchi is reluctant to accept due to a previous failed office romance. The arrivals from the Saga flight include a family led by Tanokura (Teruyuki Kagawa), who is having an affair with a young dental hygenist, Yuri (Erika Toda), from Osaka. His wife, Miyoko (Misuzu Kanno), is courted by a man claiming to be an old schoolfriend, who later turns out to be a con-man named Kunikida (Joe Odagiri). Their daughter, Mayumi (Anna Ishibashi) has a secret relationship she is hoping to spring on them, while their son (Sosuke Ikematsu) seems desparate to return to Tokyo for an unknown reason. Tanokura’s brother-in-law Kuranosuke Tsuruhashi (Katsuhisa Namase) is also seeking for funding for his dreams of building a planetarium. And their grandfather (Toshiki Ayata) has a secret of his own. Okouchi does her best to help them out, offering advice and assistance, supported by her own friend who works at the information desk.

This made-for-television film, written and directed by Koki Mitani, is a fantastically plotted and acted farce. The whole film takes place within the small airport set and is shot in a single take. This gives things a theatrical feel and the lack of cuts makes you appreciate the skill of the actors staying in character throughout. The camera largely follows Okouchi from one area of the airport to another, occasionally drifting away to focus on other characters, which helps break up the film into scenes even as a single long take. The humour is fairly broad, mostly revolving around relationship troubles or odd characters, such as the con-man or Kuranosuke’s obsession with raising money to build a planetarium. The film also has several running gags, adding layers of absurdity as things progress, building to a chaotic climax as secrets begin tumbling out. The actors all give fantastic performances. Yuko Takeuchi’s Okouchi is a likeable and relatable employee, having to maintain a veneer of respect and politeness while facing unbelievable situations and characters. Her comedic performance is helped by the supporting cast, including some incredible actors giving excellent comic performances, each given a moment to shine. For the most part the characters really only have one joke each, but the interplay between them and the way they all come together at this singular inconvenient moment provides plenty of humour. The airport set, including small background details give a real sense of place, the bustle of extras helping bring that strange airport atmosphere of people drifting around to life. The music by Kiyoko Ogino, a bouncy piano score, reflects the light-hearted tone of the comedy-drama, allowing you to relax and realise that nothing here should be taken too seriously.

“Airport 2013” focusses on familial and romantic relationships and the secrets that often hold them together. Each of the characters has a dream or a secret. Okouchi acts almost as a conscience for the characters, encouraging, warning, helping, or hindering where necessary. The thrill of watching a ‘live’ performance in the single-take style adds an element of fun to things and it is great to see such a talented cast brought together. The humour is universal and suitable for all ages. An entertaining watch about the stresses of trying to keep things together under difficult circumstances, and the secrets that families keep from one another.

Mio on the Shore (2019) by Ryutaro Nakagawa

Mio (Honoka Matsumoto) lives in a picturesque rural village in Nagano with her grandmother who runs a bathhouse. When her grandmother becomes sick, Mio moves to Tokyo to live with Kyosuke (Ken Mitsuishi), an old friend of her mothers. After failing to find work, Mio begins to help out at Kyosuke’s bathhouse. She makes friends with a local film-maker and a man who runs an Ethiopian restaurant.

Directed by Ryutaro Nakagawa, from a script by Nakagawa, Hikaru Kimura and Keitaro Sakon, “Mio on the Shore” is a contemplative slice-of-life drama, its story unfolding slowly with plenty of time for ruminating on the characters state of mind. There is some stunning scenery to look at of the rural waterside town where Mio lives, beautifully captured by cinematographer Rei Hirano. The long lingering shots, accompanied only by ambient noise, create a meditative atmosphere, allowing us to sit quietly with Mio and experience her own sense of anomie or aimlessness. Some of the film’s most powerful moments are these wordless scenes of visual poetry, looking out over an expanse of water, or sitting in a dark bathhouse. It is very much a film that forgoes plot for a fragmentary approach, highlighting several incidents and conversations that build up a portrait of everyday life. The charming score by Hisaki Kato provides the perfect accompaniment. Mio is a likeable protagonist, shy and enigmatic, her inner world often closed to us, but nevertheless intriguing. Mitsushi’s Kyosuke also seems to be harbouring a secret, a conflicted character dealing with his own demons. There are allusions to their pasts, but very little is made explicit.

Towards the end of the film we see a montage of businesses closing down, perhaps the closest the film comes to making a statement on its theme. “Mio on the Shore” is a film about things drawing to an end and what is left behind when they are gone. Whether businesses, relationships, or human life, all of these things are finite. The English title “Mio on the Shore” perhaps a reference to this borderline between being and not being, while the Japanese title “Holding Light in your Hand”, referencing a poem that is recited in the film, speaks to the ephemeral, ineffable, ethereal, spiritual world, the transience of all things and how humans live in a society where nothing lasts forever. While it may seem like a depressing notion, the film offers a hope in the sense that there is light in the world, even if we are not able to hold on to it for long. We cannot hold on to the past, but we can enjoy life while it is here. A poetic ode to the fleeting nature of existence. A beautifully shot film that reminds us that while everything in life is temporary, there is beauty in its transience.

Not Quite Dead Yet (2020) by Shinji Hamasaki

A surreal comedy about a difficult father-daughter relationship. Nanase (Suzu Hirose) has never forgiven her father Kei (Shinichi Tsutsumi) for not being by her mother’s bedside when she passed away. As lead singer of a death metal band she pens excoriating lyrics about how much he stinks and how much she dislikes him. Her father seems oblivious to this, focussing only on his research at a pharmaceutical company. When the company develop a drug that allows a person to die and later return to life, Kei finds himself temporarily deceased for two days. There is a plot afoot by a rival company to take them over, which Kei learns about shortly after dying. His assistant Taku (Ryo Yoshizawa) hears about this attempt to steal the company and its research; and along with Nanase they attempt to save her father’s company, while Kei tries to contact them from the spirit world.

Writer  Yoshimitsu Sawamoto and first time director Shinji Hamasaki deliver a hilarious look at death that delights in poking fun at tense parent-child relationships. Odd characters, wordplay jokes, visual humour, and surreal moments all work together to create a film that has no intention of being taken seriously. The excellent comedic central performance of Suzu Hirose (Our Little Sister) as Nanase, gurning and howling her way through the film, alongside the equally amusing straight man act of Shinichi Tsutsumi as Kei, is a fantastic dynamic, the wild child teenager conflicting with her boring father. A fantastic supporting cast, with Yukiyoshi Ozawa as Kei’s assistant, Kyusaku Shimada as the rival company head, and cameo roles for Lily Franky as a spirit guide and Den Den as a ramen chef, give the whole thing a variety show feel, with some scenes playing almost as standalone sketches. The rock music sets off the riotous punk aesthetic, sticking one finger (the index finger) up to the norms of family dramas. There is little surprise in the resolution of the film and it never attempts to flesh out the narrative or characters, instead using every moment to cram in more jokes. The film even actively pushes back against convention at times, with Nanase telling Taku that this is not some kind of romantic drama.

“Not Quite Dead Yet” follows a long cinematic tradition of poking fun at death, puncturing any sense that it is something to be concerned about. By having a pill that allows people to die temporarily it further distances us from the fear of death. In this universe death is simply another state humans might be in, no different than being asleep. Nanase and Shinichi’s relationship deteriorates after the passing of her mother, with Kei burying his head in his work while Nanase vents her frustrations through her music. The film shows a slow coming together of the two and the realisation of the importance of living life and not forgetting those people who are left behind. With its whimsical premise and a short run time packed with laughs, the film is an easy watch that is sure to raise a smile.