Tag (2015) by Sion Sono

It is hard to give a synopsis of this film without spoiling what is the most fun part of watching it: the constant unexpected shocks, gross-out moments, and bursts of ultra-violence. The film follows three main characters, Miyuki (Reina Triendl), a high-school student, Keiko (Mariko Shinoda), a reluctant bride, and finally Izumi (Erina Mano), a marathon runner, whose sections blend into one another to give the impression that this is one personality represented as three individuals. The film has a dream-like sensibility to it, flowing from scene to scene, mixing nightmarish fantasy with reality.

The film begins with a unique scene of carnage, almost as ridiculous as it is terrifying, and doesn’t really let up from there. It could best be described as an absurdist horror, which will surprise, amuse and disgust you (sometimes in the same scene). It becomes apparent early on that what you are watching is not intended to be realistic, but read as a metaphor for something else. Writer and director Sion Sono is known for grotesque and sexualised imagery and here we have both. It makes a mockery of cheap exploitation almost while exemplifying the genre itself, think schoolgirl underwear peeked under short skirts and extreme carnage that seems to come out of nowhere. “Tag” does not scrimp on the horror with some genuinely disturbing moments. It keeps you on edge in a way that plays into the themes of the film. There is an ever present threat that is heightened by the surreal nature of what is unfolding. The acting from the three leads is fantastic and they do a great job of expressing the terror of what is happening. Supporting performances from Yuki Sakurai, Aki Hiraoka and Ami Tomite are enjoyable and the cast all have good chemistry together as friends. It is clear that the director intended this to be more than a simple horror-action film, and the direction does a good job of creating a sense that there are social themes under the surface. An early sequence of Miyuki by the river, with corpses and clothing strewn about, has a peculiar beauty to it, and throughout there are moments that are unforgettable for a variety of reasons.

“Tag” is grotesque, exploitative, and sensationalist, but also with a strong message against misogyny. The fears faced by Miyuki and Keiko, around school and marriage, are exaggerations of typical anxieties faced by girls and women. The use of the white feathers exemplify this notion of a perceived feminine purity that becomes tainted throughout life and the fear this engenders. This is twinned with the paranoia of the opening sequences which see Miyuki switch uniforms (moving up in school years). She is constantly buffeted by forces she cannot control, perhaps representative of puberty, and forced to keep moving forward. Later in the film the white feather comes to symbolise freedom. We see it at the end of the film when the characters seem to have finally broken free of their constraints. Miyuki’s friend tells her to remember that the world is surreal and there is no predetermined path. This idea, that you should not allow yourself to be defeated by the world, but keep your own sense of yourself alive is important. The final scenes drive home this message about a patriarchal society that treats women as playthings, becoming almost a critique of the film itself and the way it treats its main characters. The film is a cry for individualism in a world where women are forced into particular roles. We constantly see characters running from some unseen force, or pushed and pulled by other characters into situations they are not sure about, or don’t fully understand. The real conflict here is between the women and society itself. It is also a film about free will versus determinism, albeit told in its own bizarre, blood-spattered way. I would recommend this film to any fans of gory exploitation cinema with a twisted sense of humour and an unexpected message.

Bento Harassment (2019) by Renpei Tsukamoto

Single mother Kaori (Ryoko Shinohara) comes up with a unique scheme to get back at her unresponsive teenage daughter, Futaba (Kyoko Yoshine). When Futaba refuses to speak to her, Kaori decides to create kyaraben (character bento), depicting everything from household products to famous comedians in an attempt to embarrass her daughter into communicating with her. As the days go on, the characters and messages in the lunchboxes get more outlandish and ridiculous as the two go head to head in a battle of wills.

“Bento Harassment” is a charming and often hilarious portrayal of a difficult mother daughter dynamic. The loss of her husband and troubled relationship with her daughter make Kaori a deeply sympathetic character. We are rooting for her from the beginning as we see her struggles to get her daughter through high-school (a seemingly thankless task) and hold down two separate jobs. Ryoko Shinohara gives a supremely enjoyable performance, showing the steely determination to not let her daughter get the better of her, and also tender moments as her actions are beneath it all driven by love for her child. Futaba is not an entirely unsympathetic character, and more so as the film progresses, we are shown a different side to her. Kyoko Yoshine is excellent in the role of a difficult teen whose cool exterior hides a deep respect for her mother. Rena Matsui is also good as Futaba’s older sister.

“Bento Harassment” comes up with an original and light-hearted way to show the hardships of motherhood. It also shows mouth-watering examples of the traditional lunchboxes with all manner of food on display as well as the picturesque island of Hachijojima. One running joke in the film is characters mentioning, in an offhand way, that Hachijojima is actually part of Tokyo (the rural island being at complete odds with the image of the sprawling metropolis). The cinematography and soundtrack are colourful and joyous and the whole film has a comfortable air that allows the audience to simply relax and enjoy the jokes and straightforward drama as it unfolds. There is a subplot in the film of a single father and his son that runs in concert with that of Kaori and her daughter, however, it is unusually only resolved post credits. There are also a couple of moments of fake credit sequences that break the fourth wall in a somewhat jarring way given that this type of humour is not present elsewhere. The film also takes a turn in its final act which seems like a manipulative and unnecessary attempt to add a degree of peril to the plot. However, the film is so packed with charm and humour that these issues are really only minor quibbles.

Screenwriter and director Renpei Tsukamoto’s film is an uplifting look maternal love and the trials of bringing up teenagers in a single-parent household. The two leads play perfectly off one another and capture the complex relationship of the mother and daughter, both the good and bad. The film’s ending may be predictable, the film is absolutely a drama that enjoys a comfortably safe plot structure, but it is nevertheless effective and impactful. Thanks to the performances and humour we are exasperated and frustrated along with the characters, fully invested in them with every annoying bento-box that is created and pried nervously open.

We are Little Zombies (2019) by Makoto Nagahisa

After Hikari’s (Keita Ninomiya) parents die in a bus accident, he meets three other children at the crematorium who have likewise lost their parents, through suicide, murder and in a house fire. The four form an unlikely friendship, united by tragedy, and head out without any real plan of what they will do next. They return to each of their homes in turn, recovering items they have left behind, and reliving the circumstances of their parents’ deaths. While sitting around in a slum building populated by homeless individuals, they decide to form a band and are picked up by a talent scout who happens by while they are performing. As the “Little Zombies” they soon enjoy huge popularity with the disaffected youth of Japan, but it seems as though not even stardom will puncture their sense of detachment from the world around them.

“We are Little Zombies” is a film with a dark sense of humour, beginning from the opening scenes at the crematorium. While most films dealing with bereavement would show an emotionally tumultuous coming-to-terms with loss, this film takes the polar opposite approach. Instead it shows the characters, especially Hikari, as completely unphased by what has happened, unable to cry over his parents who were cold and distant in life. Instead he is permanently lost in the otherworld of his handheld video games. Likewise, the other characters deal with their situation stoically, death having seemingly little consequence for those who are left. Writer/director Makoto Nagahisa shows huge creativity in this idiosyncratic film, with the use of a digital 8-bit soundtrack and camera angles giving the feel of a  videogame (at times even cutting to game graphics that represent the four main characters). There is a sense that anything could happen as characters talk direct to camera, dream sequences and inner monologues interrupt the action, and fantasy increasingly intrudes into their realities. As the film progresses, the bizarre situations only increase. This sense of anarchic surrealism is in keeping with the youthful protagonists. They look on calmly as the world about them grows increasingly strange. The songs are catchy and the jokes are good. The four leads (Ninomiya, Satoshi Mizuno, Okumura Mondo, and Sena Nakajima) do a fantastic job, oddly compelling in their unemotional response to their parents deaths and charismatic in their interplay as a group of friends. The music, composed by the director, is great, playing on everything from videogame themes to loops of shop music and classical pieces.

The film takes an unconventional approach to the themes of loss and grief. The characters all seem emotionally detached from the world, whether because they genuinely lack compassion or are struggling to come to terms with their experiences. The loss of their parents has untethered them from the usual coping mechanisms of children. They are all at sea and rather than dealing with the death of their parents they have isolated themselves emotionally. However, this comes at the cost of a loss of direction. They live for minor accomplishments, similar to those achievements of video games. The structure of the film, as “stages” and “missions”, highlights this lack of an overarching purpose in their lives. It is in the end a film that is about life and what people live for. The deaths early on are a stark reminder that there is in the end little purpose to life in itself outside of what people can create for themselves. “We are Little Zombies” is a quirky film, revelling in its black surrealist humour, but with a great deal of heart beneath the surface.

Weathering With You (2019) by Makoto Shinkai

16 year old Hodaka has run away from his home and caught a ferry to Tokyo. Arriving in the rain-drenched city streets he finds it difficult to get a job or a place to live. He decides to contact Kei, a man who saved his life after the ferry was caught in a storm. Kei runs a small magazine with his partner Natsumi, publishing bizarre stories on urban legends. Hodaka agrees to help out and is soon writing articles for them. After researching a piece on Sun Girls and Rain Girls (who have the ability to control the weather), Hodaka runs into a real life Sun Girl, Hina, who is able to make even the rainiest day turn to clear skies by wishing it. Realising the potential for this ability in a city where the rain never stops, the two turn her powers into a business opportunity, renting out their services for people needing a sunny day, either for a flea market or a wedding. However, Hodaka soon realises that this gift comes at a price and that her connection to the weather will lead Hina to making a terrible choice.

Makoto Shinkai’s success with his last feature “Your Name” has garnered the director a huge amount of publicity and placed on his shoulders the burden of expectation. In following up that incredible film, he has created a work that again showcases his considerable artistic and storytelling talents. The characters are all likeable, especially our protagonist Hodaka, whose family troubles are never fully explained, but whose status as a runaway throws him into the world of the story as something of a blank slate and surrogate for the audience. All of the supporting cast are enjoyable, though often written more as comic relief, such as Hina’s younger brother and Natsumi. The relationship between Hodaka and Hina works well, with both being isolated and finding purpose through each other.

The film blends magic with a real world drama and it is easy to suspend disbelief for the more fantastical elements. The film drifts close to darker themes at times too, such as Hina’s near-miss with a group of unsavoury club owners and Hodaka’s family situation. It is partly this mix of genuinely emotional and difficult themes with the fantastical elements that make the film so compelling. The art and animation team have so perfectly rendered the streets of Tokyo, with every detail covered, that any sense of artifice is stripped away and you are fully immersed in this world. The animators recreated real world locations and the attention to detail in every aspect is truly amazing. Weather effects have always played a large part in Shinkai’s work and here the team seem to have perfected the techniques of visualising every element of the climate. The use of computer-aided animation also means there is more scope for camera movement, with sweeping or spiralling shots creating a great sense of space and fluidity to the action, and perfectly complimenting the traditional hand-drawn animation.

There is definitely a move towards a more action-oriented story than Shinkai’s earlier films. This includes the introduction of guns, an explosion and high-speed chase. There is also an expressive cat to tug at the heartstrings and later played for laughs, that seems to suggest an awareness of a broader audience for his work than films such as “Voices of a Distant Star” or “5 Centimetres Per Second”. That is not to say that this doesn’t work, far from it, but what the film gains in pace and humour it perhaps loses in those contemplative moments of character development that typified earlier films. The music, again by RADWIMPS, lacks the memorable tunes of “Your Name”, but the score as a whole is beautiful and in keeping with the stunning animation work.

“Weathering With You” touches on many themes familiar to fans of Makoto Shinkai’s filmography. At the heart of the drama is the romance between Hodaka and Hina and their love blossoming slowly as the story unfolds. Weather has always featured heavily in Shinkai films, and here it is elevated to a central importance in the plot. We see how weather impacts everyone’s lives, determining what they can and cannot do and even how they think. The relationship between cloudy skies and gloomy outlooks is evident in the relief of characters when the skies clear and sunshine reappears. One of the main messages of the film seems to be that of getting through rough times rather than simply wishing them away. We are reminded in the film that Hina’s powers only offer temporary reprieve and lead to the weather returning stronger and more dangerous after such a delay. There is a suggestion here that it is better to let things run their course naturally than attempting to avoid something perceived as bad, or perhaps running away from your problems (as both Hodaka and Hina do). Surprisingly, the film seems to have little to say about the current climate crisis, although this clearly provides an inspiration and backdrop for the setting. The film is an excellent example of Makoto Shinkai’s work despite minor imperfections. The animation is spectacular, there is plenty of humour and action for the casual viewer, and lots to enjoy for long-time fans.

Yarukya Knight (2015) by Katsutoshi Hirabayashi

Makoto Gosuke (Tomoya Nakamura) moves to a school ruled by the female students. The girls, fed up with their strict and perverse teacher, Arashi (Alexander Otsuka), have kicked him out and taken over the school. Misaki Shizuka (Nina Endo) is the leader of this new female-led revolutionary governing order. The male students meanwhile are kept in check, repeatedly punished for their sexual desires, stripped and tied up for their apparent impertinence. Gosuke falls in love with Misaki and urges the other boys to take a stand and take back the school. When cruel teacher Arashi returns, Makoto and Misaki must put their differences aside to fight together against their common enemy.

“Yarukya Knight” is based on a manga of the same name by Nonki Miyasu. Director Katsutoshi Hirabayashi uses an active camera and off-kilter angles to create an exciting visual style. Special effects are used sparingly but to great effect to further emphasise that the film should be seen as a live-action cartoon. In particular a scene of our protagonist being thrown so forcefully into a wall that he becomes lodged there. All members of the cast do a fantastic job with their characters and have great comedy timing and performances. Particularly Tomoya Nakamura, Nina Endo and Erisa Yanagi.

A simple teen comedy that treads familiar ground of male sexual desire and female attempts to avoid it. The dynamic between the groups works well as a catalyst for much of the humour. The jokes usually land well and the premise is amusing. The sexual politics that the film portrays are simplistic and rely on stereotypical views of teen life, but this plays to the film’s strength. It creates a host of likeable characters in a tongue-in-cheek teen comedy.