Hana and Alice (2004) by Shunji Iwai

Best friends Hana (Anne Suzuki) and Alice (Yu Aoi) begin to drift apart after starting high-school. Hana begins following an older boy they saw at the train station, later discovering he is a senior in her school Rakugo club. When the boy, Masashi (Tomohiro Kaku), bangs his head against a shutter door, Hana seizes the opportunity, telling him he’s lost his memory and that he recently confessed his love for her. Meanwhile, Alice is scouted by a talent agency and begins auditioning for parts in commercials. Hana’s dishonesty grows as she later tells Masashi that he used to date Alice too leading to a complicated love triangle between the three.

“Hana and Alice” is a beautiful depiction of teenage friendship, with incredible performances from the two leads. The chemistry of Anne Suzuki and Yu Aoi is enjoyable from beginning to end, with their believable quirks and clear affection for each other making them instantly likeable. What is a fairly straightforward love triangle is enlivened with the plot of Masashi being told he has lost his memory. The film follows a traditional high-school narrative, building to a school festival at the end, with romantic dates, friends falling out and making up, and a touching look at Alice’s somewhat chaotic home life with her mother. The script captures so many relatable moments, with the girls shivering in the cold waiting for a train, or gently ribbing one another over their appearance, and luxuriates in simply spending time with these two characters. Writer and director Shunji Iwai also created the charming score captures the youthful atmosphere and compliments the stunning cinematography by Noboru Shinoda which brings a magic to the everyday environments of the girl’s lives: school, parks, cafes and the seaside.

In Hana and Alice, Iwai creates two likeable protagonists with believable backstories. The characterization and performances are engaging and make you keen to spend time with them and find out what will happen along the way. Although a disservice to Tomohiro Kaku, who is great as Masahiro, his character serves simply to offer a mirror through which the two girls are able to reflect on their own feelings and relationship. The film’s central theme remains friendship and how this can be maintained when people’s lives and interests begin to diverge. Hana and Alice are shown as literally and figuratively in tune with one another at the beginning, even mirroring one another’s movements. The audience is fully invested in hoping that this friendship will not be destroyed. We learn a little of Alice’s backstory, and briefly about Hana, but the film manages to suggest so much more, propelling the story through character rather than plot. A fantastic high-school film that breaths fresh life into the traditional teenage girl drama.

Suzume (2022) by Makoto Shinkai

High-schooler Suzume (Nanoka Hara and Akari Miura as young Suzume) has lived with her aunt Tamaki (Eri Fukatsu) since her mother passed away 12 years prior. On her way to school one day, she passes a mysterious older boy Souta (Hokuto Matsumura) who asks her if there are any ruins nearby. It seems that their quiet coastal town contains a door that offers a view through to a parallel world and one that contains within it a violent force in the shape of a large worm. Souta has arrived in town to prevent the worm breaking loose and causing a devastating earthquake. Suzume unwittingly removes the Keystone that takes the form of a white cat named Daijin (Ann Yamane) and transforms Souta into a three-legged chair. Feeling responsible for the impending disaster, Suzume sets out to chase the cat across Japan, carrying Souta with her as the two attempt to prevent the worms from emerging through the doors.

Makoto Shinkai is a director who seems to have found the magic formula for creating intriguing, engaging and moving stories. Following the success of “Your Name” and “Weathering with You”, this film brings together many of the familiar elements from those works, combining it with an original story that outdoes both in terms of it’s epic scope and emotional impact. From the first moments, the animation is exceptional, with swaying grasses, glittering water, sparkling constellations, ruins brimming with incredible detail, and every conceivable weather lovingly rendered. RADWIMPS return again to provide the soundtrack to the film along with Kazuma Jinnouchi. There are also a number of pop hits played during a road-trip sequence that are sure to have you tapping along. At this point Shinkai’s sublime animation, the sound design that wraps you in a believable world of wind, rain, chirping cicadas, and bustling background noise, is perhaps taken for granted. The story this time around relies less on the romantic boy-meets-girl plot of previous works, instead functioning as a coming-of-age story for Suzume and containing a much deeper theme relating to the tragedy of the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan in 2011. Rather than referring back to his own works, Shinkai pays homage to Hayao Miyazaki, in the adventurous female protagonist tackling not only a magical world, but also deep seated personal trauma. The Ghibli connection is made explicit in a couple of nods to “Kiki’s Delivery Service”. The road trip approach to the story, taking us from Kyushu, through Shikoku, to Kobe, Tokyo, and on to Miyagi, gives the film a forward momentum, enlivened by the epic confrontations of gods and demons from a parallel underworld, light humorous touches, and the colourful characters Suzume encounters (voiced by a number of great actors including Sairi Ito, Shota Sometani, and Ryunosuke Kamiki.

“Suzume” discusses the trauma of death, both general and specific, in a way that is accessible enough for a young audience without shying away from the harsh reality. By personifying the earthquakes, the film captures the sense of indiscriminate danger caused by them. We learn later in the film that Suzume was displaced from her home, taken to Kyushu to live with her aunt, following the earthquake of 2011, an event that still casts a shadow over many lives. The film treats its subject respectfully and earns the emotional pay off in Suzume’s story, which in less skilled hands could have seemed trite and exploitative. The film also returns to some of the ambiguity and complexity of Shinkai’s earlier works, with a moment of raw drama between Suzume and Tamaki that captures their fraught yet loving relationship. Even for those unfamiliar or not directly touched by the disaster, this story of a girl struggling to come to terms with the sudden, untimely death of her mother, is heart-wrenchingly believable.

On the Edge of Their Seats (2020) by Hideo Jojo

Two friends in their final year of high-school, Asuha (Rina Ono) and Hikaru (Marin Nishimoto), arrive to watch a baseball game, a sport they know very little about. They are joined by fellow student, Fujino (Amon Hirai), who used to play but has since given up, and later the studious Miyashita (Shuri Nakamura) whose reasons for being there are less clear. Despite the urging of the enthusiastic English teacher, Mr. Atsugi, the four are at first uncomfortable cheering on their team who are playing much stronger opponents.

“On the Edge of their Seats” plays out almost as a one-act theatre piece, with the majority of the action taking place on the bleachers at the baseball game. We never see the field or players, instead the camera is firmly fixed on these often indifferent spectators, creating a unique dynamic as we see their reactions to the game and their discussions, and attention, wandering to and from the baseball. The actors are believable in their roles, with their naturalistic performances helped by a well observed, lightly comic script from Tetsuya Okumura. The story moves deftly from the humour of Asuha and Hikaru’s complete ignorance about the sport they are watching to themes of strained friendships, broken dreams and unrequited love. We learn that Asuha and Hikaru are members of the drama club, their hopes of participating in regional finals dashed by Hikaru catching the flu at the last minute; Fujino is pining for the quiet Miyashita; top student Miyashita is dealing with losing out on top place on a recent test to her romantic rival Kusumi (Hikari Kuroki). The script builds all the elements quietly, slowly introducing new strands to the story and creating believable characters who have a good chemistry together. It cuts away from the stands occasionally, using the setting of the baseball stadium well to break up the action.

A fun, coming-of-age film that takes a unique approach to its familiar themes. The friendship of Asuha and Hikaru being tested; the faltering romances of several characters; the stress surrounding test results; and teenage angst, are all encapsulated in a single afternoon spent watching baseball. Although we do not see the game, baseball is used as an allegory for life throughout. The idea of the outfielders, paid little attention until they make a mistake, or the incompetent batter who nevertheless remains determined to succeed, provide parallels with the way society treats those unlucky individuals who fail to make centre stage. The idea of the characters as observers, rather than players, emphasises this idea, with them sitting as far away from the ‘action’ as they can. The teacher character of Atsugi, as might be expected in a teen drama, offers several words of wisdom throughout. The four characters, who have largely given up on their dreams, are shown that it is not the result but the effort that is most important; and that people should continue chasing their dreams no matter how many setbacks they encounter.

Re/Member (2022) by Eiichiro Hasumi

A group of high-school students are tasked with reconstructing a body to stop a monstrous curse in this teen action-horror. Asuka (Kanna Hashimoto) is an introverted high-school girl who struggles to fit in after an incident in her early school life left her ostracised from the popular groups. At midnight one night she finds herself transported to a chapel by the school, along with five other students, Rumiko (Maika Yamamoto), Rie (Yokota Mayu), Atsushi (Fuju Kamio) Takahiro (Gordon Maeda) and Shota (Kotaro Daigo). The bookish Shota is able to shed light on their situation, explaining that they must recover several severed body parts and lay them in a casket in the chapel. They are hunted through the school by a bloodied child carrying a teddy bear, the victim of an historic murder. Failure, often due to being killed by the bloodied child, results in the six being returned to the morning of the previous day. In order to break this cycle they must work together to find all the parts of the body.

Re/Member starts out strong, with some brutal horror and excellent direction by Eiichiro Hasumi perfectly capturing the creepy vibe. The group of school-children being hunted by a supernatural horror is a well-worn story by now, but the gruesome deaths, eerie night-time chases around the school, and the mysterious past of the monster are stylishly woven together. The film’s main failing is in the fact that the story removes most of the tension by explaining that they will repeat the same night over again if they are killed. This wouldn’t be an issue if not for the fact that the characters themselves soon seem overly relaxed about their predicament, taking time out for a fun day at the beach, and even moments of romance, seemingly unconcerned by being brutally murdered night after night. The lack of threat undermines the elements that are well done, with some fun action and excellent special effects. The earlier monster of the young blood-spattered child is replaced by a less effective antagonist later in the film. Threat is added later on when the teenagers’ mortality is re-established, but this could have been included from the beginning. The horror score creates a sense of dread that manages to recapture some of the terror that should be felt. If you can put aside the large plot-holes and inexplicable story elements then “Re/Member” is a fun teen horror. The film is based on a web novel, with a screenplay by Harumi Doki.

One element that the film strives to bring out is the relationship between the characters. The notion that the monster is the personification of their loneliness is an interesting element, but one that fits poorly with the fact that it is trying to tear them limb from limb. The solidarity and comradeship the six require to defeat it is a positive message, but again the questions over exactly what the purpose of the ‘Body Hunt’ is for stands in the way of any other considerations. Much like the dismembered corpse, it is a film that seems put together from several popular teen move tropes. Although it is not particularly original, the cast and set-piece action moments are strong enough to make for an enjoyable action horror.

Bittersand (2021) by Tomoya Sugimoto

When scurrilous rumours are written about high-school student Eriko (Ayane Kinoshita), classmate Akito (Yuki Inoue) decides to take the blame. This seemingly frivolous decision leads to seven years of regret as Akito is unable to forget what happened following the incident. Now grown up, Akito’s friend, Yusuke (Riku Hagiwara), an amateur film-maker suggests using their high-school experiences as the focus of a documentary, and the two attend a reunion with plans of revealing all about what really happened.

“Bittersand”, requires suspension of disbelief that the rumours surrounding Eriko would have led to her total ostracisation and would still be relevant to the characters seven years later. Sadly, the moment of revelation is more likely to provoke a shrug rather than any sense of surprise. If something more serious than the juvenile relationship troubles and teenage pregnancy were the reason for the class still harbouring any interest in what happened, it could have been more impactful. The film itself even appears to acknowledge this with one fellow former-student laughing off Akito and Yusuke’s presentation and wondering why the others aren’t willing to simply get on with the reunion afterwards. The film misses a chance to focus on things that would be more interesting, such as why one characters physical appearance changes drastically, how one character managed to raise a child as a teen mother, or even giving us an insight into how the original incident affected the characters. The film is not all bad, with a mixed bag of performances, and some great direction. Perhaps the worst you could say about the film is that it is underwhelming; that it answers questions that the audience weren’t interested in asking.

One of the themes of “Bittersand” is how memories and experiences can linger and affect our later lives. Even something as seemingly insignificant as the events of Akito’s high-school years stay with him. The use of frequent flashbacks is an effective way to show this, emphasising the idea that past and present are inextricably interlinked, and our consciousness often drifts from one to the other without distinction. As discussed the film often misses out on exploring its most interesting elements. The ideas of infidelity, regret, the importance of the truth and the impact of malicious rumours, and the unreliability of memories, are left to wither on the vine. A fairly innocuous young adult melodrama that will appeal to people who like high-school gossip. The moment of exposure, with a criminal investigation style chart up on the blackboard is absurdly over-the-top, perhaps suggesting that the film is intentionally comedic.