The Door into Summer (2021) by Miki Takahiro

Based on a novel by Robert A. Heinlein with a screenplay by Tomoe Kanno, “The Door into Summer” is a science-ficiton infused romantic drama. Soichiro (Kento Yamazaki) has a tragic run of bad luck, losing both his mother and father, and then his step-father. Soichiro’s only friends in the world are a stray cat he names Pete; and his step-sister Riko (Kaya Kiyohara). Following her father’s death, Riko goes to live with her uncle Kazuhito (Hidekazu Mashima) who runs the robotics company that Soichiro works for. After being double-crossed by Kazuto and his partner Rin (Natsuna), Soichiro decides to go into a cryogenic sleep for 30 years, finding things changed in unexpected ways when he reawakens in the future of 2025.

The film’s main failing is an overly complicated plot that takes so much time to explain that it leaves little room for character development or emotional attachment. The relationship between Soichiro and Riko, and even Soichiro and Pete are largely forgotten about for a long period after he wakes up in the future. The use of cryo-chambers and time-travel make things interesting, but cause the film to feel disjointed, without a clear focus on a central plot element. When Soichiro wakes up in the future he finds that things have changed and sets about finding out what happened to his former company, but it seems out of character for him, who would surely be more concerned about what happened to Riko, and leaves the audience missing that more meaningful story. By only moving things forward a few years from where we are currently the film also forgoes the opportunity to offer an exciting futurist world, with things appearing little changed aside from the mass adoption of androids and holographic signpost. Ideas of time-travel, androids, and technological advancement would all have been interesting aspects to explore, but the film seems to ignore in its most intriguing elements. The actors all doing a good job with the light romance and melodramatic evil corporation storylines, Yamazaki and Kiyohara have good chemistry as the step-siblings which makes it even more disappointing when they are separated.

Early in the film Soichiro explains that in winter, Pete wants all the doors opening, believing that he can find a door back to warmer, summer weather. Similarly Soichiro wants to use technology to travel into what he hopes will be a brighter future, without realising that life cannot be so easily ignored. The film’s central message seems to be that you have to pass through the dark times to reach the light, but again it strangely doesn’t dwell or expand on this theme. “The Door into Summer” has a lot of interesting ideas but never fully realises them, instead using science-fiction as window dressing to tell a rather lacklustre romantic story. There is far too little character development and a plot that is so focussed on getting from A to B that it forgets to tell a meaningful story along the way.

Theatre: A Love Story (2020) by Isao Yukisada

Following a chance meeting on the street and a brief romance, impoverished playwright Nagata (Kento Yamazaki) and Saki (Mayu Matsuoka) move in together. Their relationship is far from easy though. Nagata is writing for a theatre troupe called “Oroka” which he established with his school friend Nohara (Kanichiro Sato), but his lack of success leads the group to slowly fall apart. Saki does her best to encourage him, but his difficult personality, driven by his anxiety and ego, lead to arguments between the two.

Written by Ryuta Horai and directed by Isao Yukisada, “Theatre: A Love Story” is a poignant look at a troubled relationship. Over the course of the film we witness Nagata and Saki as they attempt to work out their differences and support one another in their own ways. The script gives us numerous moments that reflect those parts of romantic relationships that often go unrepresented on film. Awkward silences, arguments about nothing much at all, the inexpressible joy of simply being together, or moments of silliness that help to build that indefinable bond. It is touching to hear Nagata talk of the warmth he feels simply hearing Saki laugh; and Saki’s clear devotion to her boyfriend. The well-observed script is brought to life by an excellent cast. Kento Yamazaki and Mayu Matsuoka create a believable couple, perfect in their imperfections. Yamazaki’s Nagata is a brooding, frustrated young man who takes out his anxieties and feelings of inadequacy on Saki, while Matsuoka’s Saki is both endlessly charming, funny and charismatic, yet harbouring deep dissatisfaction with her own life and Nagata, supporting him despite her misgivings. The supporting cast, including Kanichiro Sato as Nagata’s urbane friend, and Sairi Ito as Aoyama, a former member of Nagata’s acting troupe who goes on to find success as a theatre critic, further underscoring his own lack of achievement, all do an incredible job with the naturalistic style of dialogue. Throughout there are hints to the theatrical, in Nagata’s narration of his life and relationship, his inner thoughts constantly chewing over his insecurities. There are also poetic monologues, such as when he is taking Saki home on his bike, vocalising his feelings for her. The wistful score and direction sweep us along on the journey with these two lovers, whose relationship can often seem incomprehensible given their difference in personality: Saki is outgoing and fun, while Nagata seems often miserable and misanthropic.

“Theatre: A Love Story” is a film about a man who is struggling with various insecurities. He lashes out at those around him, variously criticising other playwrights, refusing to go to Disneyland as he believes he can’t enjoy other people’s creations, and refusing to let Saki enjoy other people’s work. His controlling, often petulant behaviour, masks a deep-seated fear of rejection and his neuroses about his own ability. Jealousy over more successful writers lead to him being angry or upset at Saki without really knowing why. All of these facets of human psychology and relationships are insightfully written and portrayed in the film. Nagata is far from a likeable character, but as things progress we come to an understanding of his behaviour. Saki on the other hand indulges Nagata’s worst impulses, giving him exactly what he wants, attention and praise, but not what he needs, a cool appreciation of his abilities and his flaws. A beautifully wrought relationship drama that deftly depicts the various complexities of human emotions and a poignant portrait of a man dealing with his own sense of inadequacy.

Alice in Borderland (2020)

A series of violent games tests the wits and courage of young Tokyoites as they work to find out who is behind them. Arisu (Kento Yamazaki) is a jobless gamer, berated by his elder brother for not helping out. Leaving home he meets up with his best friends: barman Karube (Keita Machida) and office worker Chota (Yuki Morinaga). After hiding out from the police in Shibuya, they emerge into an empty city. It appears that the entire population besides them has instantly vanished, leaving everything behind. Game arenas begin to appear with across the city, all managed by some unseen force. Completing these dangerous challenges rewards them with more time to live; failing means death. Arisu and his friends find themselves fighting for their survival, meeting other characters such as the athletic Usagi (Tao Tsuchiya), who is trapped in this otherworld with them, trying to return home.

“Alice in Borderland” is based on the manga by Haro Aso and does a good job of converting the frenetic energy and pace of that format to a live-action drama. The opening episodes set up the characters with minimal effort, introducing us to the three friends and immediately establishing their rapport. Kento Yamazaki is likeable as Arisu, a failure in life who suddenly finds his talents an indispensable asset in the world of the games. Keita Machida and Yuki Morinaga give off a warmth as his friends and the three have a great chemistry and dynamic. As the series progresses, this pattern is repeated, with instantly relatable characters introduced with a short backstory in flashback that lends motivation or personality to their role. Later in the series, the characters join a larger group who are working together under the leadership of Hatter (Nobuaki Kaneko) to escape back to the normal world. These characters live in a hotel complex renamed “The Beach”, where they spend their days lounging in swimwear, and their nights competing in the games to earn playing cards for the leader (believed to be the only way to return to the normal world). There is a definite slowing of pace at this point. While the first three episodes are almost non-stop action, we move into more character study and contemplation of the situation. That is not a bad thing as many of the new characters are equally, if not more, intriguing than the old characters, such as Hikari Kuina (Aya Asahina) and Chishiya (Nijiro Murakami), whose story becomes one of the most exciting. Direction and cinematography give the whole series a sleek look, particularly during the action moments. The CGI is far better than most live-action manga adaptations and used sparingly enough that it does not detract from the story.

Japan is no stranger to the ‘death game’ genre, from “Battle Royale” to “Gantz” there are several examples of this type of story. “Alice in Borderland” follows these with a few fresh twists on the format. We have a mysterious presence who is running the games, forcing the humans into conflict and struggle; a hero who believes that there is a better way than killing to escape the game; and a series of deadly scenarios. As the title suggests, the series makes several references to “Alice in Wonderland”, with playing cards used to determine the type and difficulty of the games, characters named “Usagi” (Rabbit) and “Hatter”. Rather than fighting each other, or an alien force (as in the other examples of this genre given), here they are challenged with puzzles, tests of strength, and tests of honour or loyalty. Much like those other series, the sense that this is a chaotic new world is replaced by the realisation that in fact this is the real world stripped back to its most essential and atavistic elements. Later in the series the references to authoritarian government and the role of the military in supporting oppressive regimes are unavoidable. The Beach is a darkly satirical reflection of a society that is happy to accept horrific things so long as they can enjoy themselves. The people there show no desire to find out who is behind the games (that kill large numbers of them); nor do they make any attempt to change a hierarchy that sees them as expendable tools in the acquisition of power for the leaders. When they are forced into playing a “Witch Hunt” game, the sight of them throwing dead bodies onto a fire will recall for many the horrors of fascist dictatorships. “Alice in Borderland” draws clear parallels between the behaviour of individuals in this new world, and society in general. The games act as a test not only of their intelligence and strength, but their moral character. For fans of this genre, there is a lot to enjoy, great action sequences, likeable characters, and an curious mystery at its heart. What it says about humanity may be disturbing but is also a poignant reminder of our many weaknesses as well as our capacity for courage and triumph against the odds.

Another (2012)

Koichi Sakakibara transfers to a new high school and meets a mysterious girl, Mei Misaki, who nobody else appears to see. Misaki shares the name of a girl who died twenty-six years ago and she can see ‘death’ through a false eye she keeps hidden behind an eye-patch. When students at the high-school begin dying in seemingly chance accidents the two begin investigating an old curse affecting year 3 class 3.

Rather than being a straight up gory horror the film creates a creeping fear as the two struggle to discover a way to prevent the deaths of their classmates. The fantastic score in particular develops a foreboding atmosphere and the cinematography is good. The story is entertaining despite odd plot elements and a rather unsubstantial resolution. Certain explanations are skipped over to keep the running time down and the focus is kept tightly on the two leads.

The film is set in 1998 and themes of continuation and a connection to the past are present throughout with the recurring curse being the driving force of the interactions. The film is largely a meditation on youth, death and trying to understand the incomprehensible natural forces which shape peoples lives. Balanced somewhere between a B-movie melodrama and a more serious psychological thriller, the film offers many interesting moments interspersed along a rather thin storyline. While not always successful it is a fun distraction.

Based on the novel by Yukito Ayatsuji.