Mio on the Shore (2019) by Ryutaro Nakagawa

Mio (Honoka Matsumoto) lives in a picturesque rural village in Nagano with her grandmother who runs a bathhouse. When her grandmother becomes sick, Mio moves to Tokyo to live with Kyosuke (Ken Mitsuishi), an old friend of her mothers. After failing to find work, Mio begins to help out at Kyosuke’s bathhouse. She makes friends with a local film-maker and a man who runs an Ethiopian restaurant.

Directed by Ryutaro Nakagawa, from a script by Nakagawa, Hikaru Kimura and Keitaro Sakon, “Mio on the Shore” is a contemplative slice-of-life drama, its story unfolding slowly with plenty of time for ruminating on the characters state of mind. There is some stunning scenery to look at of the rural waterside town where Mio lives, beautifully captured by cinematographer Rei Hirano. The long lingering shots, accompanied only by ambient noise, create a meditative atmosphere, allowing us to sit quietly with Mio and experience her own sense of anomie or aimlessness. Some of the film’s most powerful moments are these wordless scenes of visual poetry, looking out over an expanse of water, or sitting in a dark bathhouse. It is very much a film that forgoes plot for a fragmentary approach, highlighting several incidents and conversations that build up a portrait of everyday life. The charming score by Hisaki Kato provides the perfect accompaniment. Mio is a likeable protagonist, shy and enigmatic, her inner world often closed to us, but nevertheless intriguing. Mitsushi’s Kyosuke also seems to be harbouring a secret, a conflicted character dealing with his own demons. There are allusions to their pasts, but very little is made explicit.

Towards the end of the film we see a montage of businesses closing down, perhaps the closest the film comes to making a statement on its theme. “Mio on the Shore” is a film about things drawing to an end and what is left behind when they are gone. Whether businesses, relationships, or human life, all of these things are finite. The English title “Mio on the Shore” perhaps a reference to this borderline between being and not being, while the Japanese title “Holding Light in your Hand”, referencing a poem that is recited in the film, speaks to the ephemeral, ineffable, ethereal, spiritual world, the transience of all things and how humans live in a society where nothing lasts forever. While it may seem like a depressing notion, the film offers a hope in the sense that there is light in the world, even if we are not able to hold on to it for long. We cannot hold on to the past, but we can enjoy life while it is here. A poetic ode to the fleeting nature of existence. A beautifully shot film that reminds us that while everything in life is temporary, there is beauty in its transience.

Blue, Painful, Fragile (2020) by Shunsuke Kariyama

Ryo Yoshizawa and Hana Sugisaki star in this young adult drama about two students with big dreams. Kaede Tabata (Yoshizawa) maintains a philosophy of absolute non-engagement, his belief being that if you do not connect with people you can’t hurt them or be hurt by them. This all changes when he meets Hisano Akiyoshi (Sugisaki), a bright and socially conscious classmate. Hisano is someone who believes in changing the world for the better, ending poverty, war and discrimination. The two decide to begin a club called Moai, with the intention of running social events and improving things in a small way. However, as the club becomes larger it evolves into a group for connecting students with potential employers, and Kaede is forced to reassess whether he really wants to be a part of this more corporate club or whether it should continue at all.

While the film contains elements of romantic comedy drama, it also has a strong message about social issues and the difficulties in trying to make positive change in the world. The two protagonists are diametrically opposed in their worldviews, one a pessimist who believes change is impossible and that the best approach is simply not to try and alter things; and the other convinced that everyone can make a difference to the world. It is fun to watch the dynamic between these two, helped by great performances by Ryo Yoshizawa and Hana Sugisaki. Their clashing personalities make both their friendships and the disagreements between Kaede and Hisano feel genuine. The supporting cast, including Amane Okayama as Kaede’s friend Tosuke, Honoka Matsumoto and Nana Mori do a great job as idealistic young characters who . Yoshizawa and Okayama work great as the friends, with many of the funniest scenes together. The plot has a couple of twists that make it more interesting than an average drama. It flicks back and forth over the space of two years to show what the club was and what it became, which helps create a sense of mild intrigue as to what happened in the intervening time. The film is rarely entirely serious in tone, even when it touches on more serious themes of corruption, sexual harassment and abuse of power, instead remaining firmly in the comfortable territory of soft focus, brightly lit scenes featuring a cast always looking their best.

“Blue, Painful, Fragile” is a film that really captures the personalities of its characters and their relatable dilemmas in attempting to work co-operatively. It covers a number of issues that will be particularly pertinent to its younger target audience, including the social issues such as climate change, poverty, discrimination and war; the issues of corporatism corrupting any potentially benevolent social enterprise; data privacy; sexual harassment and mistreatment of women. But at its heart it is the central conflict between the two leads that drives the story. People are problematic, with their own jealousies and insecurities jeopardizing any attempts to do good. The film shows us that Kaede is kind hearted in his desire to do no harm, but his reticence to engage means he is also not making any positive contribution to society. On the contrary, Hisano wants to do good, but unwittingly ends up creating something that evolves into an organisation that has little to do with her high-minded ideals.

My Father, the Bride (2019) by Momoko Fukuda

Toka (Honoka Matsumoto) travels home for the anniversary of her mother’s death. She is shocked to see her father Seiji (Itsuji Itao) in her mother’s dress, and more shocked to discover he plans to remarry with a man named Kazuo (Kenta Hamano) who he is living with. Kazuo also has a teenage daughter, Dari (Serena Motola) whose friend Taki (Yugo Mikawa) is dealing with his own issues of identity. Toka slowly grows to an understanding of her father and acceptance of his decision.

Written and directed by Momoko Fukuda, “My Father, the Bride” is a film about family relationships, particularly that between Toka and her father. The film is also about gender and sexuality, although it is chaste in its depiction of the relationship between Seiji and Kazuo. Honoka Matsumoto’s performance as Toka is great, showing her discomfort at what she discovers when she returns home and her growing acceptance of her father. The story of Daria and Taki also offers a great subplot, reflecting the same struggles for a younger generation, and Serena Motola and Yugo Mikawa offer some of the most emotionally charged moments and an excellent chemistry as firm high-school friends. Yugo Mikawa’s performance is one of the highlights of the film. The music, light jazz horn and piano and breathy flutes, and the cinematography of their beautiful island home all goes towards creating a comfortable feel. There is little real conflict or tension in the film, as with many stories on the subject of sexuality in Japan it prefers a softly-softly approach to its theme. The film uses the family dinner table as a main stage (the Japanese title “Delicious Family” gives an indication of the importance of food in the story). We see characters variously arranged around the table in relation to their situations, with Toka often sat across from her father, but later in the film sitting side by side as they make food together.

The film has a clear message about accepting gender differences. The relationship between Seiji and Kazuo seems a little underdeveloped. Perhaps this is to be expected as it is Toka’s story and told from her perspective. The audiences lack of knowledge about their relationship is perhaps intended to mirror that of our protagonist who has arrived in medias res. In contrast Taki’s journey is a powerful and necessary depiction of the struggles of young people coming to terms with their sexuality. The film is full of heart with some great comedic moments from Honoka Matsumoto and a standout performance by Yugo Mikawa. It rarely subverts expectations on a narrative level, but its charm shines through and it is an enjoyable family drama.

Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san (2019) by Daisuke Ono

Lala Suzuki (Honoka Matsumoto) lives in rural Gunma with her mother and younger brother. Her main creative outlet is her YouTube channel, where she creates a bizarre character that she seems to carry on into her everyday life, including wearing an eyepatch and wandering around with a large mallet. When she receives a call to say that a television company wants to come and film her she sees her big chance, but her hopes are dashed when the company executives change their mind after seeing her videos and decide not to run the show. Lala’s frustrated, angsty behavior is explained when we discover that her twin sister, Lili, is a successful personality working in Tokyo, having succeeded at an interview which Lala failed.

Written and directed by Daisuke Ono, the film is ostensibly a comedy, but often feels more like an emotional drama as we watch Lala slowly succumbing to feelings of rage and resentment towards her sister. On first viewing the film can seem lacking in jokes, with a few sparse laughs and long stretches where little to nothing is happening. Lala seems disaffected and prone to aggressive outbursts. Her ‘comedic’ videos are largely unfunny, with her bizarre sense of humour almost impenetrable to anyone but herself. It becomes apparent only later in the film that this is not a comedy in the conventional sense, that we are actually not meant to laugh at Lala, but to sympathise with and perhaps even pity this character. She is a failure on her own terms, but unable to see why she is not famous or accept any other course than the stardom she feels she deserves. She feels ill-treated by the world. The film can be a difficult watch at times, and takes reflection to see the funny side of what is happening. The deadpan humour and drawn out jokes can seem impenetrable, but there are some fantastic lines and moments that have the feel of a cult classic in the making. Honoka Matsumoto gives a fantastic performance in twin roles as the disaffected Lala and the successful sister Lili, creating a believable tension between the two, even in scenes where she plays opposite herself. She is supported by a small cast including Mayuko Nishiyama and Taketo Tanaka as her long suffering mother and brother.

“Astral Abnormal Suzuki-san” is an offbeat comedy about someone who is struggling to succeed in a world that is obsessed with fame. The use of twins is a clever way to show that for every successful actor there are many more who will never be recognized and who will spend their lives as complete unknowns. This accounts for the film’s peculiar tone in that it is following the character who did not make it, who is not succeeding in fulfilling their goals, and who feels isolated, depressed and frustrated about her lack of recognition. There is a moment in the film when Lili is on television with a fake brother and mother played by actors (adding insult to injury, Lala is not portrayed at all in the family unit), and given a fictitious backstory. It shows the unreality of television. As Lala tells her student, everyone involved in the media is a liar. While the humour may be hit and miss, the performances are strong and by the end of the film you begin to sympathise with Lala’s situation.