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.

Girls und Panzer der Film (2015)

This film throws us straight into the action with a battle between Ooarai Girl’s School tank club and an international school. The story presupposes that you are familiar with the characters and the world, following on from the “Girls und Panzer” series. For those who are not, the film takes place in a world where there is such a thing as a school tank club, in which teams take command of tanks in large scale battles (as opposed to the usual sports clubs). Following this opening battle, the film’s plot kicks into gear when the girl’s school (which happens to be on a large carrier ship) is taken away. They manage to retain their tanks and organize a tournament against a University team, the prize of which is to be the saving of their school.

The film is directed by Tsutomu Mizushima from a screenplay by Reiko Yoshida, carrying on from the original series. It is a premise that is simple yet endlessly entertaining and the film gives fans exactly what they want. The battles which bookend the film are long and show a great deal of creativity. A historical supervisor was involved and it is interesting to see the large variety of different tanks and tactics discussed. The script is packed with fun dialogue, replete with historical references and meaningful quotations alongside the quirky, off-beat humour of a high-school comedy drama. The characters are all voiced by the original actors and do a great job with their characterisations. Although this film does not reintroduce characters, rather assuming foreknowledge of the show, there are many great moments that show the camaraderie and affection between them. The music by Shiro Hamaguchi is a mix of soft melodies for the character moments and a bombastic action soundtrack during the battles.

Absolutely worth a watch for fans of the series; the film has a heartwarming message about friendship and co-operation. It is a meaningful lesson for the characters that could be said of any school activity. The fact that it is tank warfare offers an unusual element to the typical school drama of overcoming adversity to save the school. The historical parallels are never drawn too starkly, but it is interesting to note Japan’s relationship with war, particularly the Second World War. Almost all political notions are stripped from the story and the tanks and flags are decontextualised. The underlying humanity of the characters shines through and the positive aspects are emphasised. Following the battles, the girls always respectfully thank their opponents and ideas of honour and respect play a large part. Alongside this, virtues of quick-thinking, strategy, boldness, compassion and more are played out on the battlegrounds.

Flying Colours (2015)

After finding it difficult to make friends at her school, Ayaka’s sympathetic mother gets her enrolled in a top high school. Ayaka soon settles in to her new school and makes a group of friends. Unfortunately, her education soon takes second place to fashion, make-up and having fun. When she is suspended from the school after cigarettes are found in her bag, her despairing mother decides to enrol her in a cram school. Ayaka (Kasumi Arimura) is at the bottom of her class, but the encouragement of the teacher Tsubota (Atsushi Ito) persuades her to apply for the prestigious Keio University.

Based on a novel by Nobutaka Tsubota, based in part on his own experiences, the film is directed by Nobuhiro Doi from a screenplay by Hiroshi Hashimoto. “Flying Colours” is an interesting film in that it begins as a straightforward comedy, complete with jokes about Ayaka’s complete ignorance of even basic concepts and facts about any subject, but transforms into more of a serious drama as it progresses. It is a little unbalanced in this regard, as the jokes tail off almost completely in the middle third only to return later on in the film. Kasumi Arimura is entertaining as Ayaka, going from airheaded teen to conscientious student. Atsushi Ito is also great as Tsubota, dispensing words of wisdom to his students and emboldening them with his own love of learning. The actors portraying Ayaka’s mother (Yo Yoshida), father (Tetsushi Tanaka), brother (Yuhei Ouchida) and sister (Kokoro Okuda) are fantastic and there is a lot of time spent with the family. Also, Shuhei Nomura as Reiji, who is forced to attend the cram school by his overbearing mother. The cinematography by Yasushi Hanamura perfectly captures the magical essence of teen life. In particular shots of Ayaka cycling past a sunset and the camera work with family and friends create an emotional journey that carries you along with the characters.

“Flying Colours” shows a particular subculture of Japan, that will nevertheless be familiar to high schools everywhere. Teenage life is an interesting time and this film captures that uncertainty about the future balanced with the notion that every moment of youth is important to cherish. It is clear that Ayaka is at a crossroads, something that is made clear to her when she visits Keio University and understands that getting accepted could change everything about her path in life. The film also deals with some quite difficult issues surrounding family relations. Ayaka’s father is an almost monstrous caricature of a patriarchal figure who has little to no time for his daughters. He spends all his time focusing on his son, to the detriment of Ayaka’s education and upbringing. The film lays the blame squarely at his door for this failing. Meanwhile her mother is kind and supportive. This male-female divide is a pointed statement on the patriarchal tendency of traditional family dynamics. A hugely enjoyable film with fantastic performances, a great sense of fun balanced with more serious themes, and an uplifting message about trying hard to overcome any obstacle.

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.