Summer Wars (2009) by Mamoru Hosoda

OZ is a virtual online world where friends can gather and companies do business; connecting the global population in a vast virtual playground. As well as this it is also used for businesses, governments and other officials, forming a vital part of every aspect of human life. Kenji (Ryunosuke Kamiki) is a high-school maths whizz (almost national champion at the maths Olympics) working as a low level system engineer on the site, when he is offered an unusual summer job by an attractive older girl, Natsuki (Nanami Sakuraba): to come home with her for the holidays. When he arrives at her home, he finds that he is to pretend to be her boyfriend for the duration of the trip, to please Natsuki’s ailing grandmother (Sumiko Fuji). Soon Natsuki’s whole family has arrived at the house, including the suspicious Wabisuke (Ayumu Saito) who left years before for America. While Kenji struggles to maintain his cover and befriend the numerous aunts, uncles and cousins, OZ is attacked. This act of cyber-terrorism has far-reaching consequences as industry computers go haywire and satellites are set on a collision course for earth. Kenji and the family around him must work together to prevent a global catastrophe.

Directed by Mamoru Hosoda from a screenplay by Satoko Okudera (the two also worked together on “The Girl Who Leapt Through Time”, “Summer Wars” is an exciting blend of family drama and technological thriller, moving from scenes of the family at dinner to the virtual world of OZ, where avatars such as the semi-legendary King Kazuma, do battle. There is a lot of heart and comedy in the film, derived from situation and character rather than cheap gags, that makes you feel a strong connection with Natsuki’s family. Kenji is also a fun protagonist, completely out of his depth in social situations, but extremely competent with maths and computers. It is impressive to see such a large family portrayed and while we are not given much information about the members, the group scenes give a sense of the chaos of such gatherings, with them speaking over each other and numerous things going on around the table. The story throws in a lot of elements, and with this cast of characters it’s hard to get bored. OZ is an interesting portrayal of an online space, a sparse clean look populated by a variety of different avatars, although the actual workings of it are somewhat fantastical. The animation overall is excellent, with expressive character design and a detailed world. Akihiko Matsumoto’s score is entertaining, with a traditional countryside feel to the rural family home shifting to distinct digitalised tune for the online world.

“Summer Wars” offers an interesting take on the idea of a metaverse, a secondary online world which mimics and has become an integral part of human society. It points out the danger of putting everything in one space like this, with even the police and fire service working through the OZ system. The film’s central message concerns communication both online and offline, drawing a comparison between the online characters who can communicate in every language on the planet, and the more traditional family gathering. The primary importance of communication to human relations is a theme that the film drives home. The grandmother is able to rally numerous people to their cause through family and acquaintances, using the phone; while Natsuki is later supported by a large online community. The technology is simply a conduit for human connection, and should not be seen as a replacement for it. The central village being an AI also speaks to this idea that humanity must always remember themselves and what is important, rather than allowing technology to change our attitudes towards one another. If there is one complaint about the film it is that Kenji and Natsuki’s relationship is not really touched on much throughout, but there is so much going on that it is hardly surprising. An entertaining film that brings up a lot of ideas about how humans will relate to each other in online spaces and a warning not to forget that it is communication that builds strong societies.

Typhoon Club (1985) by Shinji Somai

A group of teenagers are trapped at their rural school during a typhoon in this adolescent drama. Girlfriends Yasuko and Yumi; their friends Midori and Michiko (Yuka Onishi), a serious student who has a soft spot for classmate Mikami (Yuichi Mikami); and Mikami’s friends Ken (Shigeru Benibayashi) and Akira (Yoshiyuki Matsunaga) all come-of-age in one way or another through their experiences. We also follow Rie (Yuki Kudo) who flees to the city to escape the storm and is approached by an older student named Kobayashi (Toshinori Omi). Alongside the children, the film also focusses on their long-suffering teacher Umemiya (Tomokazu Miura) who has his own relationship troubles.

“Typhoon Club”, written by Yuji Kato and directed by Shinji Somai, is an acutely observed teen drama, capturing the uncertainty and energy of the high-schoolers, while also addressing serious themes affecting them. The voyeuristic framing, as we watch conversations through windows or open doorways, draws us into their inner world, and the script captures the playful air of teenage friends, or their meandering conversations. The pop and reggae score by Shigeaki Saegusa also helps emphasise a sense of youthful joie de vivre. The young cast all give believable performances and work well together. You can feel the tension between the boys and girls, and the affection between the friends. Without a single plot, the film’s strength is in its characters and letting them evolve through the situation they find themselves in. Nothing feels forced in the script and their relationships are all naturalistic. Lesbian romances, sexual harrasment, and bullying, all feature, but the film always feels genuine and never exploitative.

When the storm arrives we are treated to incredible effects of howling wind and lashing rain that capture the awesome power of such events and the somewhat surreal atmosphere accompanying them, that sense that the world is in complete turmoil. The majority of the film is taken up in simple conversations between the chracters, but they are always entertaining to watch. The film also features some interesting surreal elements, such as the two people playing the ocarina in the early morning city streets following the storm. Introduced and left without much commentary it subtly pushes the sense that the storm has a semi-mythical significance, beyond simple meteorlogical phenomenon. That it is some sort of rite of passage for the children, an awesome natural force that they must overcome to realise their potential.

“Typhoon Club” is an exploration of what it is like to be on the cusp of adulthood, with the students’ sexual awakening coming alongside the overwhelming realisation that childhood is ending and they are staring down the barrel of a long life and eventual death. This theme of mortality is raised in the shape of Yasuko who discusses her grandmother’s illness. The idea of taking on responsibilities is expressed through Umemiya, the teacher, who still seems to behave like a child, struggling to accept that he must now grow up. The storm comes to represent this hormonal cyclone, both isolating the characters, particularly in the case of Rie; being a dangerous, unpredictable and uncontrollable force; and yet also something liberating. When the children run outside in their underwear, there is a sense that they are completely free. They have given themselves over completely to the whims of fate and the elements that surround them rather than sheltering from them. In the film’s most clear reference to a philosophy, the characters discuss the possibility of people transcending their own species through death. Through the storm they appear to reach this transcendence, the suspension of the natural order allowing them to shrug off their inhibitions and simply exist, free of terrestrial concerns. Late in the film there is a suicide involving one of the characters that comes slightly out of the blue, although it does tie in to these themes of mortality and transcendence. The film also features a scene of attempted rape, or sexual assault, which may also be hard to swallow. “Typhoon Club” gives us an unvarnished depiction of puberty, drawing in elements that often function both literally and allegorically, with the external storm coming to symbolise the characters fears and struggles. An entertaining and thought-provoking film on what it means to grow up.

Bounce Ko Gal (1997) by Masato Harada

A group of teenage girls spend a wild, dangerous night on the streets of Tokyo, earning money through the seedy world of ‘compensated dating’. Maru (Shin Yazawa), who has recently had an abortion for an unwanted pregnancy, goes to meet a male client. The man (Koji Yakusho) turns out to be a Yakuza and takes her ID and phone, telling her he’ll give them back when she pays him. Her friend, Jonko (Hitomi Sato), heads to the Yakuza to negotiate getting Maru’s phone and ID back. Meanwhile, Risa (Yukiko Okamoto), is hoping to make enough money to set herself up in New York, with her flight leaving in less than 48 hours. After selling her underwear and being directed to a softcore porn shoot, she meets up with Raku (Yasue Sato) and the two form a friendship. Risa has also captured the attentions of Sap (Jun Murakami) who works as a scout for young girls.

“Bounce Ko Gals”, written and directed by Masato Harada, does an incredible job of capturing the fashions and trends of the period, while shining a light on the dark underbelly of society. The early scenes with the schoolgirls, with their famous roll-down white socks, fake-tan, and relatable obsessions, set the scene for a film that, despite an apparently exploitative story, firmly establishes things from their perspective. The cast all do a great job with a script that exudes believability, with coarse, unguarded conversations alongside moments of emotional candour between the friends. They are smart, funny, worldly wise and cynical, while also being victims of a society that sees female value only in terms of appearance and sex. The camera wends its way through crowds, plunging us right into the throngs of people, creating a palpable sense of energy and movement. Told across a single day, scenes often cross-over, with the camera following one group then catching sight of another protagonist and switching to them. This all goes to help the sense of a living, breathing city and real characters.

The film is an incredible social document, offering a window to this specific period in time, the world of ‘compensated dating’ and the sexualisation of young girls. We see various aspects of this, including girls selling their underwear and school uniforms; ‘talent’ scouts picking up girls on the street to sell to hostess clubs or pornography companies; and older men paying for dates with teen girls, usually with a sexual motive. The film steers clear of moralising, but rather questions the type of society where these behaviours are prevalent and, to an extent, normalised. It is a society where women and girls are considered second-class and existing only for the amusement of men. Also one where youth is fetishized. As the teens state at one point, high-schoolers (Japan has middle and high school), are already considered old ladies. However, this film empowers its protagonists, showing them as savvy and self-sufficient in the warped economy where money rules all and girls can be easily exploited. It shows the dangers of what they are doing too, with brief indications of brutal violence, but also there is a sense of fun and camaraderie between the girls that shines through. One important moment near the end of the film sees the trio of Risa, Raku and Jonko conversing while a group of priestesses perform their rituals nearby. It gives agency to them, and suggests that the choices women make are entirely their own and that it is possible to find strength through companionship in a world that seems determined to keep them down.

Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop (2020) by Kyohei Ishiguro

Yui Sakura (Someguro Ichikawa), known familiarly as ‘Cherry’, is a quiet, thoughtful young high-schooler, working part time at a day care centre for the elderly, and spending his free time compiling haiku. Yuki (Hana Sugisaki), known online as ‘Smile’, is an outgoing social media influencer who has taken to wearing a face mask to avoid revealing the braces straightening her buck teeth. The two bump into each other at the mall and soon form a strong friendship despite their differences. Yuki agrees to help Yui find a record for one of the old people at the care centre, Mr. Fujiyama (Koichi Yamadera).

“Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” treads familiar ground as a feel good teen drama, with strong visuals, and simple, brightly-coloured art, giving it a dazzling quality that instantly captures the imagination, creating an upbeat, enjoyable, summer atmosphere in keeping with the characters and setting. The character and world design all utilise a simplicity of style with recognizable characteristics, this stereotyping further emphasised by the use of nicknames for many of the main characters, including ‘Cherry’, ‘Smile’, ‘Japan’ and ‘Tough Boy’. The story too is pared back to its most basic elements, essentially a youthful summer love story twinned with Mr. Fujiyama’s search for the missing record and his own forgotten romance. With an upbeat pop soundtrack and colourful animation the film is a perfect watch to lift your spirits.

“Words Bubble Up Like Soda Pop” creates a tension between the traditional poetry form of haikus and the ultra-modern elements embodied by Yuki, such as an obsession with mobile phones, social media and celebrity. The film brings haiku to a contemporary world, showing the power of words and poetry. The “beauty through simplicity” of haikus is an ethos that aptly describes the film itself. The story, the visuals, the animation, are powerful precisely because of their simplicity. Examples of this include the moments where we see Yui and Yuki in split screen, drawing our attention to their similarities and differences. Yui wears headphones to avoid having to engage with the world, while Yuki wears a face mask avoid the attention of the world. It is these moments that make the film such an enjoyable watch; what appears on the surface a straightforward story, on second glance has so many elements just below the surface. It is possible, just as with a haiku, to find genuine beauty in this simple romantic tale.

HELLO WORLD (2019) by Tomohiko Ito

Naomi Katagaki (Takumi Kitamura) is a shy, bookish high-schooler who is assigned to the school’s library team, alongside other students including Ruri Ichigyo (Minami Hamabe). Ruri is also quiet and it seems that the two would make a good couple if either was confident enough to make the first move. The Kyoto of 2027, when the film is set, is part of a large scale project by the government to record the city for a vast historical record. Naomi is forced into action when he meets a future version of himself who explains to him that Naomi’s reality is in fact a version of Kyoto stored in a computer system known as Alltale. This future Naomi (Tori Matsuzaka), explains that it is imperative that he establishes a romantic relationship with Ruri and protects her from a tragedy that is to occur in the near future. With his future self’s help, Naomi sets about doing this, also being given a powerful tool to manipulate the simulated world around him; but things to not go smoothly when the system begins to reject the changes that they are causing to the historical record.

Based on a screenplay by Mado Nozaki and directed by Tomohiko Ito, “HELLO WORLD” switches up the highschool romance formula with elements of time-travel and science-fiction. Naomi is a familiarly sympathetic awkward teen, who struggles to confess his feelings to Ruri, who later transforms into something more akin to a superhero along with world-changing powers. It is an interesting dynamic, drawing together the two genres of high-school romance and superhero action. The film pulls several narrative twists throughout that keep things interesting and break with tradition, reveals about the true nature of the world and character motivations.

Heavily utilising computer-aided design and animation techniques, these stylistic choices pay off later in the film with truly incredible moments when Naomi’s reality begins to break apart around him. The use of computer animation also allows for a striking contrast between rainbow coloured elements and hyper-realistic backgrounds that gives the film a unique feel and helps further the sense of a world that is at once tactile and believable yet prone to collapsing into a the maelstrom of a corrupted computer system. The visualisation of computer program elements, a mix of authoritarian police officers and folkloric animal spirits further demonstrates the film’s creative blending of genres and styles. It is a testament to the strength of the protagonists that with such a chaotic backdrop of collapsing realities, not to mention the very nature of their own existence, that the central relationship between Naomi and Ruri manages to hold our attention and inspire sympathy for their situation.

“HELLO WORLD” is a curious film as it juggles several plots at the same time. Naomi’s relationship with Ruri, his attempt to become the hero of his own story, win the beautiful maiden and save her and the world from its impending doom, is a familiar journey for young male protagonists. Through his spiritual and emotional guide, the older version of himself, he learns to be confident and finally manages to transcend even his ‘all-knowing’ mentor to become able to direct his own destiny. The other theme the film tackles is the nature of reality and questions around fate, free will and the purpose of our personal struggles. Naomi takes the knowledge that he is part of a computer program surprisingly calmly, considering he is being told that he is not living in the real world, only a simulation. Everything around him is essentially pre-recorded and therefore predestined. This new understanding of the world around him gives him great power, allowing him to manipulate the events and people around them as his future self directs him to. It also challenges the audience to consider if it would be possible to alter this ‘reality’, something the computer program attempts to counter as it would jeopardize the stability of the system. More interestingly than these free will versus determinism questions, is the focus on Naomi’s own psychology. He continues to fight for Ruri, whom at first he is even reticent to talk to, despite learning that in fact this world he is in is not the true reality. It is an interesting dilemma and highlights the idea that humans can only interact with the world subjectively. To Naomi, his experience is all that matters; there is no point fighting for anything other than his own desires, even those of his future self. “HELLO WORLD” is a film that weaves a psychological science-fiction narrative through a romantic high-school melodrama, creating a story that toys with your mind as much as your emotions.