Love Exposure (2008)

Yu Honda’s life is one steeped in Christian tradition. Following the death of his mother, a devoutly religious woman, he lives together with his father who turns to the priesthood to deal with his grief. However, his father’s increasingly stringent demands for his son to confess his sins soon leads Yu into the gang lifestyle in order to find something worthy of confession. Yu meets up with a group of tearaway teens who are into shoplifting and soon graduates to taking covert upskirt photos of women, believing sexual perversion to be the one thing that will satiate his father. Meanwhile, Yu’s father falls in love with a sexually aggressive woman who leads him away from his calling as a priest, and Yu continues with his perverse hobby along with his newfound friends. Yu has sworn off sexual or romantic relationships with any woman other than his “Maria”, after his mother told him in his youth that she wanted him to find a girl exactly like the mother of Christ. Unexpectedly, while in drag after losing a bet, Yu meets his Maria in the shape of Yoko. This girl is also carrying plenty of emotional and psychological baggage, having suffered physical and sexual abuse at the hands of her promiscuous father. Yoko falls in love with Yu, believing him to be a woman called Miss Scorpion. Unable to confess to her as himself, Yu is in emotional turmoil. A second girl, Aya Koike, is meanwhile attempting to destroy Yu’s family, by converting his father to the cult of Zero Church that she is involved with.

Written and directed by Sion Sono the film is clearly the work of an auteur of exceptional talent and unique vision. While a four-hour movie may sound long, Sono’s skill at storytelling and the characters, humour and ideas he manages to pack in make this an enjoyable watch from start to finish. The running time also allows for a full exploration of several of the themes of the movie. The film is chaptered, and with the main three characters of Yu, Yoko and Aya, it is broken up in such a way that maintains the audiences interest throughout. As well as several plot strands, such as Yu’s deception of Yoko as Miss Scorpion, the Zero Church, and even Yu’s father’s romance, each relationship sets up another conflict requiring resolution. The actors all do an incredible job with the material that veers from slapstick to serious without ever undermining itself. Takahiro Nishijima is great as Yu, who is fighting to reconcile his religious upbringing with his emotional urges. It is a credit to him that he creates a believable character of Yu, who could have been simply a caricature pervert. The film later makes a point of contrasting him with just such characters to emphasise his own psychological depth. Aya Koike is a force of nature, manipulative and vicious, though again with good reason. Hikari Mitsushima delivers a spellbinding performance. While her initial appearance seems to suggest a typical angry teenager, as the film progresses and we see her open up emotionally she shows a huge range. In particular her recitation of the biblical passage Corinthians 13 is an incredible piece of acting and one of the highlights of the later portion of the film.

What begins as a satirical look at the perversion of religion and its obsession with deviancy, and in particular sexual deviancy, expands to include various topics. There is throughout an examination of sex, both its dark and destructive aspect as well as its undeniable power and significance in human relations. The film also deals with issues of abuse, emotional, physical and sexual, and how this can impact on the development of individuals. It may be convenient for some to boil the film down to an essential message about the importance of love, or even a more cliched “love conquers all” philosophy, but that would be to miss the point. The film’s multifarious dimensions, the merging and distorting of divine and obscene imagery, suggests an intention to purposely blur the lines between what is and is not sacred or important to humanity. People struggle under the weight of imposed religious morality, and it is openly mocked at times, but there is an understanding that people need something to strive towards or cling to. For some in the film this means substituting the traditional Christian church with a new cult, for others it is an obsession with perversion, for others it is love. “Love Exposure” is rarely condescending, even when pointing out the absurdity of humans. It instead attempts to unravel the various social pressures, psychological foundations, and basic human drivers to understand why humans act the way they do.

Girls in the Dark (2017)

Five members of the Seibu Catholic Girls School literature club join together for an evening of food and storytelling. The theme of this meeting is to be the death of one of their group, Shiraishi Itsumi. We discover that Itsumi was a popular pupil at their school and all of the girls looked up to her. As each girl steps up to tell her story the blame for Itsumi’s death is shifted as they point fingers at one another. Doubt over the cause and motivation for her murder arises and we also discover that Itsumi may not be all she seems.

Directed by Saiji Yakumo, the film is structured as a series of flashbacks branching off from the framing device of the dinner party. This creates a great pace as each story is relatively short and brings up numerous questions about the other members of the group that makes you want to keep watching. As the revelations and recriminations come forward the relationships of the characters change and we are forced to reassess our understanding of each of the characters. It is similar in this regard to the classic film Rashomon, as we see various events retold through different perspectives. There are elements of gothic horror in design and story. The girls club house is illuminated with a chandelier and decorated like an English Victorian house. As they discuss Agatha Christie, mystery and horror genres, these all seem to influence what kind of story the film appears to be. The story begins to drift towards the fantastical in parts. This is partly explained by the unreliable narrators and the idea that they are simply telling stories about what happens, but it somewhat undermines the finale as it appears more like the whole film is simply a tall tale rather than meant to be taken seriously. All the actresses do a fantastic job with their characters and their shifting loyalties. Marie Iitoyo, Yuna Taira, Tina Tamashiro, Riria Kojima, Nana Seino, and Fumika Shimizu all embody the various personalities perfectly and have good chemistry together on screen, shifting from friends to enemies.

Girls in the Dark is an examination of subjectivity. Their recollections increasingly contradict one another or are coloured by their personalities. It is an interesting take on the genre of the unreliable narrator and the audience is always one step behind the girls as they have knowledge that is hidden from us. It examines the idea of how meaning is created, forcing the viewer to constantly reexamine their own biases and critically evaluate what they are being told. When they lack all the facts it is hard to know who to trust, so they are left with the subjective reminiscences, or even outright falsehoods, to establish a sense of reality. I would recommend this film as a great mystery drama with fantastic performances and a unique way of telling its story.

Control Tower (2011)

Two middle school students feeling isolated in their own ways form a friendship. Kekeru Fujita (Kento Yamazaki) is a high-school student who prefers to keep to himself. He wears earphones that are not plugged in to any device to avoid talking to others, and spends his break times alone in the school chapel. When a new student, Mizuho (Ai Hashimoto), joins his class she is immediately drawn to him, sensing a fellow lost spirit. We later discover that Mizuho’s father is running from his debts, meaning that she changes schools regularly and is therefore unable to form lasting friendships. The two develop an increasingly intimate relationship, with Mizuho calling Kakeru Sunusumukun, after a character in the Moomin cartoons who is quiet and loves music. She calls herself Mii, after an outgoing and selfish character. They decide to start a band together, with Kakeru playing guitar and Mizuho on piano.

Directed by Takahiro Miki and written by Miki with Yukiko Mochiji, the film is small in scale but excels at telling its story. Set in Hokkaido, it uses the bleak surroundings and snowy townscapes to great advantage. There are some creative touches such as the sound being cut when Kakeru has his earphones to emphasise his alienation from others. Likewise, he is framed early on without other characters in shot, further highlighting his self-determined exile from the company of his classmates. Kento Yamazaki and Ai Hashimoto have good chemistry together and capture their awkward friendship perfectly. Both starring in early film roles, their performances are natural and they play off one another brilliantly.

The film is a gentle drama about friendship and finding companionship. Mizuho’s father struggles with debt and alcoholism. These are important issues in their own right, but the film’s focus on Mizuho rather than her father shows us something that is often overlooked, that is the children’s suffering from circumstances that are outwith their control. Mizuho’s inability to form friendships and establish a life in one place, due to her father running from the police, is a painful reminder that she is at the whims of her father. The film certainly has a melancholic edge, with the symbolism of the solitary Control Tower standing for a lack of communication between individuals in a world grown increasingly isolated. As in other films, music is seen as something that can bring people together, and effect a change in outlook.

Two middle school students feeling isolated in their own ways form a friendship. Kekeru Fujita (Kento Yamazaki) is a high-school student who prefers to keep to himself. He wears earphones that are not plugged in to any device to avoid talking to others, and spends his break times alone in the school chapel. When a new student, Mizuho (Ai Hashimoto), joins his class she is immediately drawn to him, sensing a fellow lost spirit. We later discover that Mizuho’s father is running from his debts, meaning that she changes schools regularly and is therefore unable to form lasting friendships. The two develop an increasingly intimate relationship, with Mizuho calling Kakeru Sunusumukun, after a character in the Moomin cartoons who is quiet and loves music. She calls herself Mii, after an outgoing and selfish character. They decide to start a band together, with Kakeru playing guitar and Mizuho on piano.

Directed by Takahiro Miki and written by Miki with Yukiko Mochiji, the film is small in scale but excels at telling its story. Set in Hokkaido, it uses the bleak surroundings and snowy townscapes to great advantage. There are some creative touches such as the sound being cut when Kakeru has his earphones to emphasise his alienation from others. Likewise, he is framed early on without other characters in shot, further highlighting his self-determined exile from the company of his classmates. Kento Yamazaki and Ai Hashimoto have good chemistry together and capture their awkward friendship perfectly. Both starring in early film roles, their performances are natural and they play off one another brilliantly.

The film is a gentle drama about friendship and finding companionship. Mizuho’s father struggles with debt and alcoholism. These are important issues in their own right, but the film’s focus on Mizuho rather than her father shows us something that is often overlooked, that is the children’s suffering from circumstances that are outwith their control. Mizuho’s inability to form friendships and establish a life in one place, due to her father running from the police, is a painful reminder that she is at the whims of her father. The film certainly has a melancholic edge, with the symbolism of the solitary Control Tower standing for a lack of communication between individuals in a world grown increasingly isolated. As in other films, music is seen as something that can bring people together, and effect a change in outlook.

River’s Edge (2018)

A high-school drama that deals with several serious issues. Haruna (Fumi Nikaido) is in a relationship with Kannonzaki (Shuhei Uesugi), who is cheating on her with her friend. Fellow classmate Yamada (Ryo Yoshizawa), who is being bullied by Kannonzaki, becomes friends with Haruna who feels sorry for him. Yamada is gay and therefore something of a social outcast amongst his peers. He takes Haruna to see his ‘treasure’, the skeleton of a corpse he discovered in an overgrown field beside a river. Another classmate (Sumire), who works as model and suffers from bulimia, is also aware of this body. The story follows each of these characters as their lives intersect and impact on each other through a series of increasingly dark and dangerous situations.

The film makes much in its opening scenes of the looming industrial site that belches forth smoke and discharges filth into the river. The setting highlights the complex, dirty nature of teenage life, being a metaphor for the corruption of society on the pure children who are born into the world. Director Isao Yukisada makes good use of cuts, for example between sex and scenes of vomiting or violence, to show the confused blend of emotions that characterise this period of life. There are for example highly comic transitions between a sex scene and the consumption of bananas or sausages, which function to underscore a message about the interconnectedness of these characters who at first seem to socialise only in a shallow sense. The bulimic subplot likewise offers a human counterpoint to the idea of the factory that both consumes and then vomits back pollutants. The acting is occasionally hit and miss, but Fumi Nikaido and Ryo Yoshizawa give fantastic performances. The ensemble cast are all given fairly hefty roles, with their own nuances and dilemmas to face. There is a little overacting, but with such a collection of actors and scenes it is easy to move past them. It is a little overlong, the second half becoming directionless, seeming more like a series of vignettes rather than a single narrative. This is easy to understand as the film is based on a manga by Kyoko Okazaki and is perhaps attempting to fit too many stories into a single cohesive narrative. The film often seems like it is struggling to fit in all of the stories it wants to tell, something that is far easier in the long form, episodic nature of a manga. The film is rarely dull however, being a kaleidoscope of teen angst and genuinely shocking scenes. All the various subplots are resolved to varying degrees of satisfaction.

The film discusses death, most prominently in the characters’ reactions to the corpse and in a latter shocking scene with Haruna. This corpse is symbolic of the characters confronting death itself, with the associated nihilism and overwhelming realisation that there is really no goal at the end of life, simply a series of tragedies. Bulimia, infidelity, anger, jealousy, homosexuality, and bullying are all shown to be part of life and the audience is left to find some morality amongst a morass of sin and suffering. There is an unspoken distance between many characters, who are unable to relate to one another, despite being in desperate need of someone to help them. They are isolate, impulsive, nothing is neatly resolved. It is a fizzing, unstable collage of teenage emotions showing the darker side of human nature. River’s Edge is a solid drama that deals with a number of important themes and leaves you speculating on the characters actions long after it is over.

I Want to Eat Your Pancreas (2017)

As a high-school teacher (Shun Oguri) is sorting the books in the library by Dewey numbers with a group of students, he is reminded of his former classmate, Sakura Yamauchi (Minami Hamabe), with whom he had a close relationship at school. The film then turns to this story with the younger boy, a retiring, lonely figure, meeting the popular, chirpy Sakura. While at hospital he finds her diary and learns that she has pancreatic cancer, with perhaps only a year to live. With her secret exposed, Sakura becomes friends with him as he is the only person with whom she can share her inner turmoil. The two of them spend time together on what might be described as a series of dates, although their relationship does not move beyond a fond friendship. Unlike other films of its kind, in which a terminal illness provides a tragic basis for a romantic relationship, this is not a saccharine story of young sweethearts. Sakura’s reasons for confiding in him are as much selfish as driven by romantic interest, with the main reason being an unwillingness to distress her best friend Kyoko.

The film utilises flashbacks to tell its story and without a doubt the scenes with the younger actors are the strongest parts. The framing device of the older characters does resolve itself into an emotional climax at the end of the film, but for the most part is a distraction from the genuinely enjoyable interaction between the young boy and Sakura. Minami Hamabe is incredible as Sakura: bright, charismatic, but harbouring deep fears and sorrow which occasionally surface. Takumi Kitamura provides a good foil, being the polar opposite in many ways, he is initially awkward, his stoic acceptance of life and Sakura’s fate complimenting her outgoing, fun-loving persona. Later in the film he also has scenes of deep sadness that are more impactful following his quiet, subtle performance earlier. Another enjoyable performance is that of Yuma Yamoto, the gum chewing classmate, who appears regularly as comic relief, with one major recurring joke. Sho Tsukikawa’s direction is beautiful with some interesting transitions between the past and present. For the most part the direction and music are what might be expected from a high-school romance. The story is adapted from a novel by Yoru Sumino, with a screenplay by Yoshida Tomoko. The dialogue is well-written and the moving back and forth through time gives the film a good sense of rhythm as you wait to see where both stories are leading.

A heartbreaking story with a poignant message about treating each day as if it were your last. This is a common theme and there are a few films of this type, but by keeping things unsentimental for the most part makes the final dramatic scenes here more impactful. Sakura is not under any illusions about her fate and both the young character’s acceptance of this tragic fact is a great example of enjoying life despite adversity.