Belle (2021) by Mamoru Hosoda

Suzu (Kaho Nakamura) is a shy high-school student living with her father. When her best friend Hiro (Lilas Ikuta) invites her to “U”, an online virtual reality world, Suzu is transformed into “Bell”, a beautiful avatar with a voice that soon attracts millions of followers. While her online alter-ego gains popularity, Suzu remains largely unnoticed at school, aside from her childhood friend Shinobu (Ryo Narita), Hiro, and “Kamishin” (Shota Sometani), the lone member of the canoe club. Suzu’s enviable online life is disrupted by the appearance of a mysterious figure in the guise of a beast, known as Dragon (Takeru Sato) whose shocking appearance and pugilistic lifestyle pique her curiosity. She sets out with Hiro to discover who is behind this avatar.

Mamoru Hosoda returns to some of the themes of his earlier film “Summer Wars” with this modern take on the “Beauty and the Beast” story set partly online. The world of “U” differs from most depictions of online environments with the futuristic addition of biometric transfer, meaning that individuals own biometrics are used to generate their avatars, and a fully immersive environment, allowing them to see and feel as if they were in that other world. There is plenty of familiarity in the plot of “Belle”, with Suzu having lost her mother; struggling to “find her voice”; several teen romances; a geeky friend; and the idea of an outsider figure being helped by the protagonist; but the film combines these elements into a unique story. Despite the nods to the older fairytale, and the inclusion of a few references to Beauty and the Beast (roses, a romantic ballroom dance), the film actually diverges significantly from this to the extent that it has few of the same themes. “Belle” tells its own tale creativitely, often breaking into collage like scenes of multiple people talking on webcams, or the touching montage of Suzu’s memories of her mother. This inventiveness transforms a straightforward story into something more heartfelt and engaging, utilising the techniques of online discourse (multiple references, and a more fragmentary style) to create something that feels modern despite its traditional storytelling. The animation is excellent with the online scenes reminiscent of the aforementioned “Summer Wars” and Satoshi Kon’s “Paprika” in the numerous avatars. There are moments that are almost transcendental as we see the vastness of this online space, a modern tower of babel of a million voices calling in unison. Music plays a major part in the story and the songs by a team of artists are inspiring and performed with spirit. While the film is a little overlong, perhaps over ambitious in the number of subplots it attempts to weave in, it manages to hit its emotional beats every time.

“Belle” deals with several themes. Through the online world Suzu is able to rediscover her true self again following a withdrawal into herself following her mother’s death. This transformative power of technology is shown in more stark contrast with the story of Kei, who is escaping a tragic homelife of physical abuse and attempting to create a hero for his younger brother to aspire to. It is interesting to see a largely positive take on the idea of social networks and online spaces with the central message being that they should be used to supplement and aid us rather than becoming an all-consuming other life. The film also finds time for a satirical dig at internet commercialisation, with the self-important guardians of “U” appearing in front of a bank of sponsor logos. Hosoda does an incredible job of dealing with difficult themes, of loss and child abuse, in a family friendly film that manages to be uplifting and positive.

Bitter Honey (2016) by Gakuryu Ishii

An aging writer (Ren Osugi) finds solace in his pet goldfish, anthropomorphised as a beautiful and flighty young woman in red (played by Fumi Nikaido). The two of them enjoy a curious relationship, with a frisson of sexual tension, and the goldfish, named Akako, also begins to explore the world on her own. Akako comes across a woman in white, named Lady Tamura (Yoko Maki), who she believes to be the ghost of a former lover of her master. The writer is also visited by the late author Ryunosuke Akutagawa (Kora Kengo), his literary rival. The writer’s flights of fancy slowly begin to consume him, perhaps as an escape from his recent terminal diagnosis as he nears his last days.

Based on a 1959 novel by Muro Saisei, with a screenplay by Takehiko Minato, “Bitter Honey” is a bizarre magical realist fable that draws no line between the real world and that of the imagination. The opening scene shows the writer and the woman in red together, he writing, her lounging, and aside from a few subtle hints in the score and dialogue it does not become clear that she is in fact a goldfish until the end of the scene. The film continues in this illogical, dream-like manner, treating Akako as a human, even to the point of her having conversations with others, while we know that she is a fish. The anthropomorphic nature of her character is incredibly powerful as the audience comes to care about Akako, her desires, her frustrations with the writer, and her relationship with other non-existent (in a real sense) people, such as Lady Tamura. Of course rationally both her and Lady Tamura can only exist in the imagination of the writer, something he alludes to later in the film, but it is still enjoyable to watch Nikaido’s performance as the bouncy, youthful goldfish, and it raises the question of free will and control in an interesting twist on a common trope in relationship dramas. The dance that Akako performs throughout is perfect in capturing the character of a goldfish, billowing tail and flowing movements. Ishii’s direction is excellent, staging the drama beautifully and, along with Norimichi Kasamatsu’s luxuriant cinematography, stunning set design and use of colour, emphasizing the sense of being lost in a fantastical dreamworld. Toshiyuki Mori’s score and the sound design perfectly compliment this stylish direction, humourous, melancholic, and with effects sounding like water droplets when Akako is on screen.

“Bitter Honey” has a surreal, folkloric atmopshere that is enjoyable to watch, helped by excellent performances by Ren Osugi and Fumi Nikaido. The plot is relatively thin and, much like in a dream, there are elements that don’t always connect perfectly with one another. The most obvious reading of what is happening is that the author, realising he does not have long left, is working on a story about his pet goldfish, imagining her as a young woman; while at the same time he reminisces about his relationship with fellow author Akutagawa and the mysterious Lady Tamura. The lines between reality and fiction are blurred by having Akako act independently, becoming a player in the drama in her own right. The relationship between the writer and Akako is genuinely moving, and the strongest element of the film, suggesting a lack of distinction between the real and the fantastical, or at least diminishing the importance of such a distinction. The film also comments on the struggles of the author, who always felt second best against the acclaimed Akutagawa, but for the most part it remains almost light-hearted as he enjoys an imaginary relationship with Akako. An entertaining magical-realist tale about an old man and his cherished pet goldfish.

Child of Kamiari Month (2021) by Takana Shirai

Primary school student Kanna (Aju Makita) lives with her father (Minako Kotobuki). As the school marathon approaches it stirs up difficult memories of the death of her mother at the previous year’s event. When Kanna breaks down at the marathon and runs away, she meets Shiro (Maaya Sakamoto), a rabbit god who tells her she must run to Izumo in Shimane Prefecture, gathering victuals from various shrines for a feast of the gods that is due to take place soon. Shiro tells her that her mother was an Idaten, a god of running, and Kanna is to take on that mantle. The two are also joined by Yasha (Miyu Irino), a demon with a grudge against the Idaten running gods who lost them their own place among the deities.

“Child of Kamiari Month” is aimed firmly at a younger audience with a formulaic and familiar plot and characters, including a strong-willed heroine and magical side-kicks. The film follows Kanna on a journey of acceptance as she comes to terms with her mother’s absence, creating a fantasy framing to better help both her and the potential audience learn how to grieve. The animation can be static at times, but the film ably sidesteps this issue of motionless backdrops with the introduction of a magical bracelet that freezes time. This provides an interesting environment, real world yet transfigured by raindrops hanging in the air and people frozen in place, as Kanna, Shiro and Yasha, along with various deities, remain mobile. It is fun to see the gods of the various shrines, but it seems like an opportunity was missed to do more with them. Most only appear briefly in a montage of Kanna collecting the produce for the feast. It would have been interesting to explore some of the characters and significance behind them. The score by Jun Ichikawa and Naoki-T is one of the highlights of the film, part whimsical fantasy but shifting to darker tones as the weight of Kanna’s sense of loss becomes more apparent.

The film’s has a simple yet noble message for its audience, showing young children what it is like to deal with the death of a parent, with a comforting and supportive cast of characters helping the protagonist overcome her grief. This is well done, subtly transforming the lost parent into a magical persona with exceptional abilities, no doubt how she is seen by her daughter. Her mother’s divinity forms the second strong theme of the film, with Kanna lacking this ability and perhaps concerned about living up to her expectations. Later in the film Kanna learns that it is a person’s will rather than their genes that define their greatness. It is an excellent message for children, especially those dealing with something similar. The film is also and interesting look at the religious heritage of the society, showing the various gods and shrines emblematic of a polytheistic, collective society, as opposed to a monotheistic one. This is further emphasised by Kanna’s reliance on Shiro and Yasha as companions on her quest. Kanna is both coming to accept the loss of her mother and also reconnecting with a wider society, coming to understand that she is far from alone. “Child of Kamiari Month” is a fun fantasy adventure that tackles difficult themes, though it may lack appeal outside the younger age group.

Black Fox: Age of the Ninja (2019) by Koichi Sakamoto

A historical live-action spin-off/prequel to the anime film “Black Fox”, the story takes us back in time to provide an origin myth for the titular hero. We are thrown straight into the action with Miya (Maimi Yajima) running for her life from the Negoroshu clan who killed her father. She manages to find the Foxes, a group of ninja warriors, whom she begs for help in getting revenge. Among the Foxes is Rikka (Chihiro Yamamoto), the grand-daughter of their leader, whose aversion to killing makes her something of a pariah in the group, despite her heritage. We discover that the Negoroshu, led by Lady Haku (Mami Fujioka) are looking for Miya to obtain her magical abilities to emit electricity, frazzling her enemies. They are working for Shigetsugu (Yuki Kubota), who is under the command of by the evil Lord Burado (Hideo Ishiguro).

“Black Fox: Age of the Ninja”, written by Naoki Hayashi and directed by Koichi Sakamoto, provides comic-book action, with a simple story, magical powers and over-the-top theatrics. There are few surprises here, with it being a straightforward battle between good and evil, and little depth to the characters, who fall into either the likeable hero or nefarious villain roles. The script likewise has some on-the-nose dialogue with characters spouting exposition about events, and comic asides that give the feel of a live-action manga. The film is clearly aimed at a younger audience, with bloodless fight sequences, and inclusions of the Black Fox’s CGI enhanced special 9-tailed attack move firmly establishing it as a fantasy depiction of the ninja. The fight choreography is well-done, with energetic camera work and all of the performers selling the action. It is a case where the interludes for story are something that has to be patiently waited through until the next set-piece brawl. These fight sequences are worth it though, showing off the abilities of the cast, as well as a mix of techniques, with Chinese-style swordplay alongside ninja-type attacks, the characters relying on trickery and wiles rather than brute strength.

The story’s twin protagonists, Miya and Rikka, both embody the image of young women determining their own path. Miya has been sheltered by her father, ostensibly to keep her from harm, though we later learn that she has been lied to and exploited. Rikka meanwhile lives in the shadow of her grandfather, and her deceased father, having to choose between the warrior code of one and the peaceful, non-violent approach of the other. While it is not a film that attempts to reinvent the wheel of historical action cinema, it does what it does well, delivering some excellent fight sequences and an all-ages story of good triumphing over evil.

The Drifting Classroom (1987) by Nobuhiko Obayashi

Based on the horror manga by Kazuo Umezu, “The Drifting Classroom” follows a group of International School students in Kobe after their classroom is lost in a time-slip. Shou (Yasufumi Hayashi) leaves home after arguing with his mother, heading out to school where he meets up with his other classmates. Not long into the school day the building begins to shake. At first believing it is an earthquake, the teachers and children try to remain calm as they assess the damage. However, looking out of the window they see that they are in a mysterious desert-like world. They are later threatened by aliens attacking the school. They must learn to adapt and survive in this hostile new environment, while back in Kobe the people speculate about the sudden disappearance of the school.

“The Drifting Classroom” is a chaotic, action-packed, children’s adventure film with dark undertones. It shifts rapidly from a spirit of light-hearted comedy as the children explore this new world, their familiar surroundings made unfamiliar as they are now filled with sand, and terrifying horror as giant insect-like aliens arrive to terrorize them. The film mixes in other elements such as survival drama as they elect a leader and try to work out how to live on the supplies available in the school. The young cast do a great job, bringing a youthful exuberance to their roles. The primary characters are Shou, Mark (Thomas Sutton), Ayumi (Aiko Asano) and the youngest Yu, but the supporting cast do a fantastic job in creating a sense of barely controlled chaos, such as you might expect in a school full of children in such circumstances. Obayashi’s direction is suited to this bizarre blend of science-fiction, horror, and adventure, with the sympathetic camera moving wildly in concert with the cast. The ambitious story, involving time-slips, other worlds, and aliens, is achieved with a blend of CG special effects, green screen, and stop motion creature work. It is a story full of twists that is endlessly entertaining.

While the premise of the film, a school caught in a timeslip, seems like it would lend itself to a relatively slight fantasy drama, there is a dark subtext to “The Drifting Classroom” that sets it above a simple throwaway adventure tale.

If you wish to avoid spoilers, please check out the film before reading further.

Part way through the film, Shou finds a memorial in the desert with the names of all the teachers and pupils he is stranded with. Other hints in the film, such as a character telling Shou’s mother that “children always go to the future”, and the slow pull out shot at the end of the film, indicate that in fact these children are marooned on a hostile post-apocalyptic earth, devastated possibly by nuclear war (an earlier scene sees one adult shouting “they finally pushed the button”). The film doesn’t shy away from death, with many students perishing due to a lack of food, and the aforementioned memorial. It confronts it’s audience, primarily children, with these harsh realities about life. The filling of the school with sand is an incredible visual metaphor for the timeslip they have gone through. They are literally trapped in the sands of time, left abandoned by previous generations thoughtless or reckless actions. Though there is hope at the end of the film, it is slight, with the children abandoned to their fate on this inhospitable planet, presumably ruined by those that came before. The ecological, anti-nuclear message is never made explicitly, but it is clearly there. A fantastical adventure with a troubling message about the world we leave to future generations.