Little Miss Period (2019) Shunsuke Shinada

Aoko (Fumi Nikaido) works as a journalist at a lifestyle magazine. As well as her demanding job and attempting to form a relationship with her romantic partner’s teenage daughter, she also has to deal with an unwanted visitor every month. This comes in the form of a large pink fluffy mascot in red pants, representing her period. Miss Period, as she is known, repeatedly punches her hard in the stomach, and Aoko has to lug her around on her back. Miss Period also occasionally puffs out soporific vapour making Aoko drowsy. In this world, every woman is followed around by a similar mascot, some larger and some smaller, but all irritating in their own way. Yamamoto (Sairi Ito) is a cleaner at this same company, still living with her parents, with her period being just one more frustration on top of the stress of work and her lack of a boyfriend. A third plot thread revolves around Aoko’s sister Hikaru (Risaki Matsukaze), and her boyfriend, as they begin a fledgling romance. These women must attempt to remain strong and reach their goals, while this invisible burden seems determined to disrupt their lives.

Based on the manga by Ken Koyama, “Little Miss Period” addresses head on an issue that is of major importance to women, yet often goes ignored by companies and even partners. Making the period a visible, comically designed and portrayed, mascot, which appears early on like a horror movie slasher creeping up on her victims, is a brilliant touch. Externalising this issue, showing the physical exertion and determination required to cope with it, makes for an entertaining way to deal with the various problems caused by it. Both Fumi Nikaido (Fly Me to the Saitama) and Sairi Ito (Love and Other Cults) get the chance to show off their comedic talents. Both are supremely likeable in their roles. Nikaido’s Aoko is a determined career woman, who will not let anything stand in her way. Working in a difficult environment she finds she has to pretend not to be affected by her period, instead putting on a brave face in front of her co-workers. Her relationship with Karin (Toyoshima Hana), the daughter of her widowed lover, is one of the most moving parts of the film, showing her trying to do her best for this girl who is unwilling to accept a new mother. Ito’s Yamamoto on the other hand is a virtual shut-in, resentful of everyone around her and painfully shy when confronted with the chance for love. Director Shunsuke Shinada does a great job of bringing what is a weird concept to life on the screen. The design of Miss Period (Seiri-chan in Japanese) is bizarre, and could so easily have derailed the narrative, but all the actors do such a tremendous job of acting alongside it that it becomes just another character in the drama. The film goes heavy on the comedy of what is happening, deflating the taboo around menstruation, cramps, nausea, drowsiness and other symptoms, with gentle humour. Also, the oblivious male characters who continue on as normal despite the women being weighed down or distracted by this, offers relatable humour for the male audience. The men in the film are also troubled by their own unwanted anxieties, in the form of Mr. Sex Drive (who appears spouting lewd pornographic phrases) and Little Boy Virgin (a cherubic figure representative of their lack of sexual maturity). The film’s surrealist, farcical comedy sits evenly alongside moments that are full of heart and genuinely moving.

While “Little Miss Period” is on one level a knockabout comedy, it also shines a light on an often taboo subject. Women still suffer discrimination in the workplace due to a lack of understanding and compassion on this issue. If the film gets people talking about this and understanding what could be done to alleviate some of the problems associated with it, then it will have performed a great service. Despite the message, the film is never po-faced, relying on humour to get its points across. As a film it is hugely entertaining, relying on physical gags and some excellent performances from the leads to develop believable characters and relatable comedy.

Fly me to the Saitama (2019) by Hideki Takeuchi)

Manami (Haruka Shimazaki) is on her way from Saitama to Tokyo for her wedding. Her parents (Brother Tom and Kumiko Aso) turn on the radio in the car for the long journey and are tuned into a radio drama telling the urban legend of the history of Saitama and Tokyo’s long struggles. The radio play takes us back to a time when Saitamese were subjected to various mistreatments and discriminations at the hands of the Tokyoites, discriminating against those from other prefectures. Rei (Gackt) attempts to fight this injustice and create an equal society where Saitamese are treated the same as people from Tokyo, while the head of a prestigious Tokyo University, Momomi (Fumi Nikaido) is determined to maintain the status quo. The fight for acceptance will also lead the people of Saitama into conflict with their other major rival, the citizens of Chiba Prefecture.

“Fly me to the Saitama” is an outrageous comedy based on the ridiculous premise of a fantasy war between Saitama and Tokyo. It throws so much at this surreal story, including influences from various genres. We see everything from Tokyo university students dressed in renaissance period clothing, science-fiction dressed police officers with rayguns, Edo-period costumes, even dinosaurs. The film will do just about anything for a joke, with funny costumes, scenarios, wordplay, and visual gags. Much of the comedy relies heavily on local stereotypes, though the comedy is so broad that almost all audiences will find something to enjoy, the more people know about these places, the more funny they are likely to find it. The actors do a great job, with Fumi Nikaido and Gackt playing their roles perfectly straight-faced despite the madness around them. The film is directed by Hideki Takeuchi, based on the manga by Mineo Maya, and with a screenplay by  Yuichi Tokunaga. The script and performances are ironically a celebration of the creativity and good humour of everyone involved, showing an ability to laugh at themselves.

The film is a broad comedy, taking themes of discrimination and prejudice and showing them to be utterly ridiculous. It allows people to laugh at local stereotypes in the confidence that they are so outrageous that they are never cruel. The finale of the film has a simple yet poignant message of bridging divides between people and not allowing ourselves to be separated by self-imposed borders. A hugely enjoyable film that puts everything into finding the humour in how people look at each other and themselves.

The World of Kanako (2014)

The World of Kanako (2014)

Akikazu Fujishima (Koji Yakusho) is an ex-police detective carrying a lot of psychological baggage. His estranged wife calls to tell him that their daughter Kanako (Nana Komatsu) has gone missing. He interrogates several of her former classmates and discovers that his daughter, who he has not seen for many years, is not at all the angelic figure of his imagination. Through flashbacks we are given the story of a high-school classmate of Kanako who is being bullied, played by Hiroya Shimizu. Kanako befriends him, using her influence with a powerful gang to protect him, but he is soon also to learn that she is not entirely as she seems. As Fujishima’s investigation continues he is drawn into a world of drugs, teenage prostitution, and gang violence as things threaten to spiral out of control. Far from a paragon of virtue himself, his quest comes to be an expression of his own guilt and death drive as much as a desire to find his daughter.

“The World of Kanako” is a film with two distinct flavours. One the one hand it is a look at the darker corners of the human psyche, with its damaged characters suffering from psychological issues, either natural or drug-induced, hints of alcohol abuse, drug and sexual abuse, much of which is tough to stomach (especially particular scenes of rape and torture). However, there are strong hints that this is no more than a tongue-in-cheek exploitation flick. The flashy title sequence, occasional music stings, the often casual approach to violence, are cause for confusion when set aside the seriousness of more harrowing scenes. The most positive reading of this is that it is representative of both Fujishima and Kanako’s mental state, being completely cold to what is happening, and looking on occasionally in horror, but more often in a darkly voyeuristic way. Director Tetsuya Nakashima won praise for his previous film “Confessions”, another adaptation from the novel by Kanae Minato. This film, based on the novel by Akio Fukamachi, is far more brutal than that, both in its story, and in the way it is told. Uncomfortable close-ups and high-octane editing, along with the films restless time-hopping structure, give the audience the feeling of being dragged along on this exciting yet disturbing ride. The central performance by Koji Yakusho is supremely bold and it is a testament to the strength of his portrayal of Fujishima Snr. that we are able to stay with him despite his often despicable actions. To say Fujishima fits the archetype of the tough, no nonsense cop operating outside the law really doesn’t do it justice. The film does not shy away from depicting the worst possible antihero. We increasingly come to realise that he is not imbued with any real positive traits. Nana Komatsu is great as Kanako, though we are never able to fully understand her, she again does a superb job of an antihero who seems to posses the same nihilistic spirit as her father. There are great supporting performances from a stellar cast that includes Joe Odagiri, Fumi Nikaido and Ai Hashimoto. The music is a blend of classical and electronic dance music that typifies the competing aspects of the film, on the one hand brash and offensive and on the other stylish and contemplative.

The film is a dark examination of the father-daughter relationship and deals with several issues that people may find disturbing. In some ways the cocktail of drugs, gangs, violence, paedophilia, bullying and everything else the film throws in come to represent a sort of obscene representation of the absolute worst of humanity. It is against this background that our characters are operating. They have no choice when it comes to living in this world, they can either embrace it or try to ignore it, but these things will continue happening. Kanako herself seems to harness amorality as a survival instinct, using her lack of empathy to navigate a horrific world of violence and abuse. Fujishima is very similar. He has no qualms about abusing, even raping women, and is irredeemably self-centred. The main difference is that he feels he has found a purpose. Both characters understand the world to be a meaningless place, with power the only real dynamic worth worrying about. Kanako’s notion of freedom, including the freedom to destroy others, is one that is a terrifying prospect. The film sets out to shock and it does so time and again, not only with its visuals but on the level of the ideas it presents. Highly recommended for fans of transgressive cinema that pulls no punches. A bold and brutal take on the detective genre.

The Sion Sono (2015)

Sion Sono is a prolific director, having made over 40 films in his career. He came to prominence through gory horror films such as “Suicide Club”, but he has created works in several genres, comedies like “Love & Peace”, a hip-hop musical “Tokyo Tribe”, and more dramatic works such as “Himizu” and “Cold Fish” (inspired partly by real world events). The film discusses the fact that he is hard to categorise, in some ways having created a category all of his own, the “Sion Sono” film. He is an auteur, both writing and directing many of his projects. However, Sono admits that he has enjoyed more fame and success abroad than in Japan, suggesting that the Japanese film industry tends to shy away from films that show the country in a bad light. His focus on sex, violence, pornography, crime, and other taboo subjects have helped to turn him into a cult star rather than a mainstream success. But it clear from this documentary that success is not something that Sono feels is the most important thing in life. We see early on his disordered studio, with large canvases strewn around and wild impressionistic scribblings across them and slap-dash calligraphy pinned to the wall. We witness an amusing scene as Sono attempts to explain something of his process, and his philosophy, to the cameraman, as he daubs paint on a canvas, in a haphazard way, creating some sort of story in his own mind as he goes, and discussing the purity of the canvas being despoiled by his paint. Rather than strive for perfection he belives true beauty lies in these imperfections, lives that are full of mistakes and rectifications. Later on he suggests that he values quantity over quality, inverting the familiar in his own controversial style he seems to be determinedly set against mainstream expectations. Sono’s primary drive is to create. As he say himself, it doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, humans are here to create, to express themselves, and to live. It is a chaotic philosophy but it appears to have paid off for the director. Despite many in the film suggesting he should have become famous sooner than he did, his recent celebrity due to several fantastic films in a short span of years has ensured his place in the pantheon of top directors.

The film follows Sono through a year of his life as he works on “The Whispering Star” (2015) and talks about many of his other works. There are interviews with Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaido (co-stars in Himizu), his wife and actress in the Whispering Star, Megumi Kagurazaka, producers, friends, and even his sister. Together they paint a picture of a man who is slightly eccentric, incredibly driven, passionate about his work, kind, and with a love of film stretching back to his childhood. During the segment with his sister he digs through old notebooks, showing his early film criticism, including a “Sion Sono” awards with Best Picture, Actress and Actor awards. There is also fascinating insight into how he creates his work, looking round sets, frantically scribbling down storyboards, dictating a precis of a new film to his assistant. In some of the most powerful scenes of the film we see Sono and his team in Fukushima, the area devastated by a nuclear plant explosion and which featured as a backdrop in both Himizu and The Whispering Star. As he speaks to locals, some of whom he recruits to act in his movie, we hear of their loss following the tsunami that destroyed their homes and businesses. Although the film doesn’t go into this in great detail it is clear that Sono feels this is an important issue to highlight. In fact this segment stands as a great documentary in itself on the aftermath of the earthquake and tsunami.

A great behind-the-scenes look at how this director works, his formative experiences, philosophy and creativity. Sono says that the only thing that concerns him is making interesting films, whether they succeed or fail financially. This documentary is certainly interesting, offering a great insight into a director with a unique vision.